(Disclaimer: this is a post in which I big up the SNP, because I’m an SNP member who supports an SNP candidate for Inverclyde and advocates SNP policies and aims. Don’t say that you’re surprised.
I plan on doing a more in-depth appraisal of the debate when Inverclyde Radio puts it on again tomorrow, so here are my immediate thoughts.)
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.
– William Lloyd Garrison, “To the Public”, No. 1 (1 January 1831)
We’re in the final month of the 2015 General Election campaign, and we’re already seeing some bewildering madness. Tories say a vote for SNP is a vote for Labour while Labour say the opposite; a phantom memo came and went like a thief in the night; a New Labour defector to SNP defects back to New Labour – then he didn’t – then he did… It’s getting weird and wild, is what I’m saying.
A lot of things have been said about the SNP candidate for Inverclyde, Ronnie Cowan. One common refrain is that he is somehow scared of debates, on account of his initial disinterest in taking part in a series of debates organised by the Conservative candidate George Jabbour. (Yet even then, he did, in fact, agree to two debates, on the 13th and 24th of April, which makes the “he’s scared to debate” meme all the more confusing). His reasoning was simple, and stated in the Greenock Telegraph: he would engage in debates closer to the election period, and that he saw no benefits to earlier debates, especially with the manifesto then-unpublished. So of course, despite Mr Cowan spending the better part of 2 years doing little else but debate as the Yes Inverclyde campaign manager, be it in the shop or on the doorsteps, his reluctance to indulge a Tory’s demands has been spun into something it most assuredly isn’t. Why else would I have backed Ronnie Cowan as SNP candidate if I thought he wasn’t up to debate?
His performance last night should put that misapprehension to rest.
I don’t like political debates: or, more properly, I don’t like what tends to happen at political debates. You all know how it goes: each candidate has an entourage of their own supporters, the shouting and booing and hissing and incredulous laughter threatens to drown out the candidates, questions from the audience run the gamut from reasonable queries to nonsensical rants. The chair – tonight’s was held by the strictly impartial and highly professional Willie Stewart of Inverclyde Radio, who will broadcast the debate once again tonight – only has so much power to get everyone to behave themselves. And on top of it all, there’s no way to reliably determine fact from fiction in situ.
Yet there’s another side to it: in order to change the climate of politics, we have to engage in it. It’s all well and good tut-tutting Highlander Guy and Gaelic Girl and Banana Lady, but at least they’re taking part in the discussion – they’re invested enough to contribute. How are we expected to change things if we don’t put ourselves forward? So while I respected Mr Cowan’s initial decision not to attend tonight’s debate, I feel that he had more to gain in this exposure than suffer lost face in his supposed u-turn. If nothing else, it would give Mr Cowan a chance to prove what I, and his fellow supporters, already knew.
So, to set the scene: we came to Greenock’s Town Hall, a glorious piece of architecture from the late 19th Century, decorated with fluting columns and dozens of sculptures. It looks particularly lovely when lit up at night. I initially believed the debate was to be held in one of the side rooms, but not only was it actually taking place in the main hall, the staff were still putting out chairs. They were expecting 150 people to turn up. The candidates were working the crowd, naturally, while the microphones and radio equipment was being set. It was strange, seeing all these people from outside the Yes/SNP (YeSNP!): the last time I saw most of them was the referendum. I noted a significant gender imbalance with far more men than women (and more men asked questions), to an all-male panel, run by a man at the chair, with a male assistant, and a man carrying the microphone. Then again, the women who were there were more than active, many sporting Women for Indy badges. A little old lady was carrying a plastic bag bearing the “No Thanks” logo. I resisted the urge to gently remind her that the referendum was over, your side won, it was time to move on. But I didn’t – because the referendum may be over, but the question of Scotland clearly isn’t. That bag might come in handy yet.
I was struck by how similar interactions were to the referendum campaign. People I knew, friends, family, they had great difficulty looking me in the eye. Why was this? Because they were Labour, or Lib Dem, and I was one of those dreadful Nats. I can only assume the most logical explanation, that they believe making eye contact with a separatist means we can suck your life-force through your eyeballs. Unfortunate side-effect of the Nationalist Virus, or key feature from Cybernat Command? This antipathy usually only lasts as long as the campaign itself – though maybe it’s because, usually, they’re the winners. What, I wonder, would happen if the positions were reversed on the 8th of May, where the SNP make history in Inverclyde? I can only hope they’d show the same grace in defeat that they displayed in victory to us in the days following the 18th of September. Before the SNP membership surge. Before the disintegration of the Vow. Before the SNP landslide polls showing that there is no such thing as a “safe seat” left in Scotland for their parties.
There are five contestants for the Westminster seat for Inverclyde: the aforementioned Mr Cowan for the SNP; Iain McKenzie looking to retake Inverclyde for New Labour; John Watson desperately trying to rally the collapsing vote for the Neoliberal Democrats; George Jabbour making a brave go of it for the Conservatives; and Michael Burrows attempting to bring UKIP support into four digits. I’ve covered Mr McKenzie’s voting record in the Devo Files, so there’s not much more I can add other than highlighting his rather ill-advised suggestion to lower the drinking age limit in a country with significant alcohol problems, as well as his attributing Inverclyde’s population drop to… lower birth rates.
Mr Watson has been a Lib Dem councillor for decades, but as with those increasingly few socialists in New Labour, he’s now in a party which has adopted the neoliberal consensus which is threatening to tear this country apart more surely and more devastatingly than any Scottish nationalist could. Mr Jabbour deserves significant praise for whistleblowing on a banking scandal, but it’s difficult to see why he would then stand for a party with an invested interest in protecting its own financers from exactly that sort of action. Mr Burrows suffers the same problem: you could be the nicest, most considerate person in the world, but at Westminster, party always comes first, and Mr Burrows’ party has a record of marginalising, denigrating and vilifying the people of Scotland. Even the biggest “rebels” in the current government toe the party line on the majority of votes.
The debate itself was an interesting experience. As expected, cheerleaders of every stripe were out, booing the people they don’t like and cheering the people they did. Yet it just goes to show you how times have changed when a Labour MP is being booed and jeered in Inverclyde. Indeed, given noise volume, a quick appraisal of the numbers and excluding the fair number of undecideds or undisclosed, not only would I say there were a few more pro-independence activists than New Labour activists present, I would go so far as to say the pro-independence activists matched the numbers for all the other parties combined. Much like what we’re seeing nationwide in membership. In Inverclyde. But, again, that’s just my impression: it is also entirely likely that the significant Labour support (who happened to take up most of the right side of the audience) just kept quiet, while the councillors and more vocal members did the cheering.
So you can imagine the noise everyone made! The only objection I have to such behaviour is when it drowns out the candidate: it’s especially unhelpful if a candidate’s own supporters won’t wheesht while they’re talking. That, however, is my only objection. Political discourse being what it is, there are few ways to hold a candidate’s words to account. They cannot be sued for defamation, nor can they be punished for lying to the public. The chair’s job isn’t to sit there googling to confirm or deny a candidate’s statement. So the only way – at least in the current predominant format – is for the people to speak up.
I must confess, I cannot consider myself exempt from such activity. That’s another problem I have with debates: it’s incredibly tempting to let your emotions overcome you, especially on a contentious red line issue. I took great pride in my relative gentility, throughout the referendum campaign and beyond. Yet it turns out, even I can only be pushed so far. Nicola Sturgeon has stated again and again that Trident is a red line issue: since Ms Sturgeon joined the CND before she joined the SNP and has taken part in rallies and protests for decades, I see no reason to argue. Trident is a red line issue for me too, and one of several reasons I made the decision to finally join the SNP back in September. So when discussion of Trident came up, I braced myself for the rush of emotions that I knew would come.
First up was Mr Cowan, who explained in far more eloquent terms than me not only the case against Trident, but why there is no case for Trident. It collapses under the merest bit of scrutiny. You can argue the economics of independence on the basis of unknowns and uncertainties; you can argue the social policies; you can argue placement within NATO and the EU. There is no argument for Trident, any more than there is an argument for Pete Viggers’ floating duck island – and at least that only cost a thousand-odd pounds, not tens of billions.
Mr Cowan was the only candidate tonight who made the case against Trident renewal, and actually stated his and his party’s desire to see nuclear weapons gone by taking direct action. Iain McKenzie, just like Jim Murphy the night before, started off with quite possibly the easiest way to trigger my berserk button: he stated that he believes in unilateral nuclear disarmament, but not to the extent that he wants the UK to make a start on it by abandoning the renewal of Trident. Here is a man who voted against the motion “that this house believes that Trident should not be renewed,” daring to justify it by saying that he doesn’t really want nuclear weapons at all.
I couldn’t handle it. In a fit of pique, I shouted “so why are you spending billions on them?” and stormed out. So much for a wilderness of peace.
Last Saturday, I marched for the first time in an anti-nuclear demonstration. The “Bairns Not Bombs” shindig. Big Sandy and his lady friend Cindy striding about like benevolent papier-mâché gods. SNP, SSP, Greens, RIC, Communists, CND, Women for Indy, all flags and all banners opposed to nuclear weapons flying in the wind. I marched proudly, carrying first a “Still Yes” flag, then swapped it for a “Hands Off Yemen” sign. I wish I brought my own sign or flag, but I was just thrilled to be there. As I marched, I walked down the streets of Glasgow. I used to walk down them nearly every day when I was at college. I have never seen so many people begging on the street as I saw that day. A woman with several missing fingers and part of her face deteriorating. Another with amputated legs in a wheelchair. One shivering uncontrollably on a warm, sunny day. I guess we should just be thankful the Russians haven’t blown us up, like they have all those other countries without nuclear deterrents.
I missed the rest of Mr McKenzie’s answer, and most of Mr Jabbour’s. I did catch Mr Watson saying something about how the NeoLibDems totally did vote against Trident in 2007 (is that why only 5 of 57 even bothered to turn up for the SNP’s motion in 2015, during a time where they were part of the UK government and thus actually in a position to have some clout?) Mr Burrows – the UKIP candidate, remember – managed to anger me less, as at least he frankly stated his position without meaningless, patronising champagne socialist pleasantries. I managed to calm down enough for the rest of the night, not least due to our campaign manager’s support.
There were some memorable moments: Mr Jabbour’s Plan for Inverclyde (& Mr Cowan’s response to said plan), Mr Burrows practically apologising for his party’s more problematic elements, Mr Watson forgetting half his lines. One particularly interesting morsel came when the question of just who Trident was meant to be used against came up. “It’s the Russians!” bellowed a familiar community voice from the back of the audience. Thinking they had collectively misheard, the rest of the audience turned in bemusement, wondering if they’d just dreamed it. The speaker reiterated and expanded upon his original interjection: “It’s to kill the Russians!” The speaker was none other than Robert Moran, New Labour Councillor, and Provost of Inverclyde.
Who won? Honestly, I don’t think you can “win” a debate: it’s the wrong mindset to take. You can only say whether someone put their case forward successfully and answered questions confidently. I was very pleased with how Mr Cowan handled himself, and that I’m glad I attended, even if I had a bit of a flaky earlier on. But to be partisan for a minute, I will say this: every candidate was granted 3 minutes to sum up at the end of the night. Every candidate was applauded: some graciously, others less so. We could expect all the candidates to be applauded by their own team.
But only one candidate received a standing ovation.