The First Minister is ready for her close-up.
As soon as she got wind of a live Brexit debate, up went Nicola Sturgeon’s peremptory demand that she be included. It is an invariable law of Scottish physics that the shortest distance at any given time is between the First Minister and a TV camera.
A programme featuring only Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, Sturgeon tweeted, would be ‘an absolute travesty of democracy’. If she was chocolate, she’d ban two-for-one offers on herself.
The logistics of the BBC Brexit debate has gripped the political class for the past week. Who will host? What will the format be? Will Nicola Sturgeon get her own podium? They speak of little else in East Kilbride.
Television adds 10lbs and takes away twice as much in brain cells. The idiot box elevates the trivial, solemnifies the asinine, prizes flair over facts, and reduces complex ideas to cereal box slogans. In other words, it is the perfect medium for discussing Brexit.
We’ve had a referendum, a General Election, and months of negotiations but we’ve not had a gunge tank and that could be the clincher.
The encroachment of broadcasting into the democratic process has been one of the most lamentable developments of the past decade. Before then, the BBC, ITV and Sky understood that their role was to report on political controversies and elections.
The 2010 election changed all that by introducing presidential-style TV debates into a parliamentary system to which they are wholly unsuited. Worse, broadcasters became participants rather than observers and now expect — and get mightily huffy if they are denied — set-piece spectacles of party leaders going ‘head to head’, waffling about ‘values’, and ‘reaching out’ to swing voters. TV debates are produced by and for people who never got over the West Wing being cancelled.
The proposed debate on the Prime Minister’s draft Brexit deal marks the triumph of soundbites over substance, pitting as it does a Remainer pretending to be a Brexiteer against a Brexiteer pretending to be a Remainer. Nothing will come of this fatuous exchange of well-worn rhetoric. The public will be no better informed, Mrs May will sputter like a second-hand Meccano set under the studio lights, and none of Corbyn’s supporters will be watching because they’re all boycotting the BBC.
We are being asked to believe, however, that the real betrayal will be the exclusion of Nicola Sturgeon, who is not an MP and has all the foreign policy powers of a Pret a Manger manager. She is already getting a vote on the final deal — 35 of them in the form of her glassy-eyed Stepford MPs who will pliantly traipse through whichever division lobby their motherboard tells them.
Sturgeon objects to the May vs. Corbyn format on the grounds that ‘Jeremy Corbyn is not an advocate for Remain, for a People’s Vote’. The woman who planted her stiletto heels on the People’s Vote bandwagon all of five minutes ago now wants star billing and dionised water in the dressing room.
This is not because she yearns for the voice of the Scottish people to be represented. The Scottish people voted for Scotland to remain inside the United Kingdom and for the United Kingdom to remain inside the European Union. Nicola Sturgeon advocates neither of those positions in the long run. The voice of the Scottish people as expressed on September 18, 2014 has never much troubled the First Minister’s thoughts when pursuing her increasingly desperate schemes to drag Scotland out of the UK. Sturgeon believes in Scottish sovereignty as long as she’s the sovereign.
The attempt to blag her way into the TV debate should make us cringe. We have as our First Minister a minor starlet trying to slip into an Oscars after-party and throwing an almighty strop when security can’t find her name on the list. ‘Don’t you know who I am? I’ve played the Hydro.’
It is hard to shake off the suspicion that in this, as in so many matters, the good of the country plays second fiddle to making Nicola Sturgeon look good. A spot on the TV debate would expand on the fiction that she is a national leader rather than an ocassionally interesting figure of marginal import south of the Tweed. It would position the Nationalist chief as a point of unity for Scots apprehensive of what Brexit will bring. If we see her defending Scotland against dastardly Westminster just one more time, maybe we’ll crack and let her have her blessed independence.
The First Minister was once a unifying figure but hubris in the wake of General Election 2015 and her opportunistic Indyref 2 campaign chucked that mantle away. Her advisers advised her badly and she continues to pay the price for it in focus groups in which voters, often women, describe her in terms unrepeatable in a family newspaper.
This has inspired a transparent and pitiful drive to make the country love her again. Her latest iteration is as the First Emoter and she regularly surrounds herself with care-experienced young people and cameras to record the touching, media-grid spotaneity of it all.
There’s nothing wrong with the First Minister softening her image, and if the lot of Scotland’s most vulnerable children improves marginally in the process all the better, but the piecemeal changes her government is making invite cynicism about these endless photo opportunities. Acknowledgement is important for youngsters who have been habitually — institutionally — ignored but a council tax exemption and an extra £5.5 million in the bursary pot while welcome are hardly transformational.
When a hard-nosed political ditchfighter is going around calling herself Scotland’s ‘chief mammy’, it’s time for her advisers to stage an intervention before she ends up making clothes from curtains and singing about the Pentlands being alive with the sound of music.
The Julie Andrews routine isn’t going to win us round to her again. What might is if she stopped sticking her oar into UK politics and focused on those public policy areas she is responsible for: our failing schools, the wheezing NHS and a justice system which no longer commands the confidence of victims or the general public. Sturgeon is all tactics and no strategy and she cannot see that parking separation for a decade to turn around public services could well win enough electors to her constitutional position.
Instead, she plans to stamp her feet and insist that Scotland vote for independence because England voted for Brexit. ‘Please miss, he started it.’
What she will not acknowledge as she rails against the many exciting opportunities for national debasement Brexit proffers is that independence would replicate these risks and self-injuries on a far costlier scale. Sturgeon needs the voters to react against Brexit rather than think about independence because independence is little more than Brexit with Gaelic road signs.
A TV debate is the sort of solution only the political establishment could think up. Brexit is the result of more than a decade of their fecklessness.
When David Cameron became Tory leader, he should have taken on the Eurosceptics but he chose to appease them and emboldened them in the process.
Knowing we were heading for an EU referendum, Labour still made an arch-Brexiteer its leader and those pale pink rows of listless former SpAds who make up the party’s backbenches failed to remove him when they had the chance.
The SNP, with its 2014 scare campaigns about the NHS and its appeal to divisive identity politics, handed Vote Leave a ready prototype for its anti-EU push.
Eleven years on from the global financial crash, none of the main parties has learned from it. Instead, they have pursued the bombastic, rabble-rousing and fantasy-imbued politics that has led us to where we are.
And for this we should reward them with a prime-time slot in the schedule? Someone hand me the remote.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com. Feature image by the Scottish Government via CC BY-NC 2.0.