Election debate can be a rehearsal for another independence conversation, writes Lesley Riddoch.
If Britain is plunged into European elections this week, will they be a washout or a chance for Scots to conduct a mature Euro debate – at long last?
Even posing this question may seem to be putting the cart before a particularly troublesome horse. Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May must get some kind of deal before Wednesday to win an extension and satisfy the impatient leaders of France, Belgium and Spain. You have to think that even May – peerless in her ability to prevaricate – will come up with something resembling a deal by tomorrow night. You also have to think most EU leaders are still reluctant to pull the rug from under Britain’s struggling feet. So it’s probable we will win another period of grace and embark on the most grudgingly fought EU poll in living memory.
Commentators insist that EU elections held as we leave the EU will be a total non-event, involving only the “Euro extremists”; fierce Remain voters and angry Leavers determined to give both mainstream parties a bloody nose. There will likely be a new Nigel Farage party vehicle and another led by right-wing thug Tommy Robinson. The SNP’s Mike Russell has predicted a larger turnout than usual and more focus on the issues. But which issues – the arid, technical and oft-rehearsed aspects of EU membership, customs, tariffs, European Court of Justice authority – or the very future of European society?
This weekend, a BBC Radio Scotland presenter spoke with the customary ennui of the chattering class by insisting: “Everyone’s sick of talking about Europe”. But are we? Has the Brexit saga ever really been about “Europe” or has it been a projection of the neurotic obsessions and disguised motives of the entitled elite wrecking Britain?
That question was posed at the Greens’ weekend conference by co-convener Patrick Harvie, who suggested the Tories’ aversion to European elections and democracy in action could deprive Scots of the proper debate about world issues we have never really had – the rise of the far- right, the climate crisis, a humane policy on migration, basic income, tackling corporate tax avoidance and deciding how badly Scots want freedom of movement, a welcoming approach to fellow Europeans and a differentiated immigration policy.
Opinion polls suggest Scots voters have distinctive Scottish positions on all these issues – but that’s been ignored by a government and media which believe the Europe debate is only about immigration, loss of sovereignty and Britain’s status as a fading imperial power.
We don’t need to have that kind of Euro poll – Scotland can do better and use the elections (if they happen) to debate the big issues that are reserved to the rudderless, self-obsessed and crumbling big two Westminster parties. Progressives north of the Border can unite to avoid the blame-fest bound to erupt south of the Border and instead rehearse the conversation that will be needed in the independence scenario that surely beckons – sooner if Nicola Sturgeon heeds the Green leadership for another indy poll during a Brexit transition or after the next Holyrood elections as the SNP leadership seems to prefer.
But a lot depends on broadcasters, especially the BBC in Scotland. If they choose, they can help make elections zing. If they get really engaged, the high-quality, reflective discussions achieved by the Debate Night programme could transform the face of how Scots “do” elections.
Of course, there’s a wee snag – next to no one is watching the new channel, despite the high quality of some content. This demonstrates why the BBC should have invested £32 million in turning the whole existing BBC1 network into a Scottish-run channel instead of casting bright new ideas into a relatively late night ghetto.
Regardless, pro-Europe politicians in Scotland may soon have the chance to recraft the lacklustre campaign of 2016 and spell out what a relationship with Europe means for Scotland. That will demand more than right-minded but occasionally righteous-sounding indignation.
Remain means more than sticking two tartan fingers up to the Brexiting rUK. It cannot be a timid acceptance of the status quo – a conservative default. Remain demands courage from politicians ready to reach out to like-minded political rivals in Scotland and across the North Sea.
Young Scots in particular are itching to have just this kind of new respectful but muscular debate. Edinburgh school pupil Josie Law told the Scottish Greens conference that she joined recent school climate strikes because it seemed no adults would act to protect the Earth.
hat’s a terrible condemnation of “business as usual” politics. Fort William pupil Holly Gillibrand said: “It’s not young people who will save the world, it’s you. There’s not enough time to wait for us. So young people must keep fighting till adults grow up.”
A real, ambitious, animated European election debate would pull these young people in. Mealy-mouthed evasion, aping the petty, despairing agenda of Westminster parties will turn them off.
Fourteen candidates have already nominated themselves as Green candidates for the EU elections – most are under 30, 50 per cent are female and all are passionate speakers. As one candidate pointed out at the hustings held yesterday, young Scots voted overwhelmingly to Remain yet mainstream parties are unlikely to field any candidates under the age of 40. The interest is there.
So what will it be? If the events of this week leave Britain inside the EU awhile and obliged to participate in EU elections – will Scots use the EU elections creatively?
Some Greens fear that the Tories – desperate to avoid a trouncing – will argue against an actual poll on the grounds of cost, irrelevance, affront to British democracy and all the other risible excuses that normally accompany their anti-democratic fixes. Instead they fear May might suggest that the tenure of existing MEPs is simply “rolled over” for as many months or years as necessary – or she might suggest that representation is “adjusted” to reflect the 2017 snap election results.
Sturgeon should let the Prime Minister know that any cobbled together “solution” short of proper European elections is unacceptable – but an electoral dressage event full of Brexit technicalities and predictable party point-scoring will scarcely be any better.
Of course our politicians are already eyeing up seats. That’s natural. But with voter confidence at an all-time low, there are far bigger fish to fry.