The Scottish National Party has every right to feel aggrieved at being excluded from the proposed televised debates involving the three UK leaders during the forthcoming general election campaign. The problem is what to do about it. It is manifestly unfair for not one, but three ninety minute debates to be shown in Scotland without the party of government in Scotland being represented. Quite apart from the unfairness, the important Scottish dimension will be completely lost as the three UK leaders debate English health, English education, English policing and other issues like nuclear power and university tuition fees as they affect England. Does anyone seriously believe that Brown, Cameron and Clegg are going to debate these issues as they apply to Scotland? Of course not.
I am not making a narrow nationalist point here. It is, or should be, obvious to any fair minded person that this is a distortion of the democratic process in Scotland. Unfortunately, it is a very difficult problem to resolve. Clearly, shoe-horning Alex Salmond into these debates will bemuse the vast majority of viewers who live in England. Clearly, Alex Salmond has no chance of becoming UK leader. His presence therefore, would be an unwarranted intrusion into the English political debate.
But if it is unacceptable to transmit these debates in England with Salmond, it is equally unacceptable to transmit them in Scotland without him. There is no easy way round this, and I think it should be tested by law. An important precedent will be established with profound implications for custom and practice of broadcasting during elections. I suspect the SNP will not go to law far because they have little likelihood of overturning the UK networks who will fight fiercely against any attempt to block the transmissions. But I still hope they try.
Really, the only fair and representative solution would be for the debates not to be transmitted in Scotland or for there to be as four way debate north of the border including the UK and SNP leaders. Clearly, Brown, Cameron and Clegg are not going to want that, but they may just have to accept it. They have agreed to have three separate debates to suit the demands of the three UK television channels – well, the least they can do is suit the demands of the devolved United Kingdom.
Unionists have been crowing at the thought of Alex Salmond being excluded from these debates, but they should have a care. This kind of thing does not go down well in Scotland, where voters have an acute sense of fairness and democratic propriety. I suspect many Scottish viewers will resent the way the SNP has been excluded, and more to the point, will resent the way Scottish issues are largely ignored, as they are on network television bulletins. These broadcasts could do severe damage to the Unionist case in Scotland, and the SNP know it.
The UK parties should think again.