This was the last BBC Question Time before the autumn, and as such took the form of a Scottish referendum special from Inverness. The panel was free of politicians, comprised of singer-songwriter Ricky Ross, Daily Record columnist and agony aunt Joan Burnie, businessman and chairman of engineering group Orion Alan Savage, and the former Scotland and British Lions rugby player Scott Hastings.
My first thought was that surely the BBC could scare up a politician from each of the main Scottish parties to debate the issue, but there will be plenty of that in the weeks to come. On reflection, I decided it would be interesting to hear from the mixed panel, and at least they would be free of the stick-to-the-party-line pre-show briefing that the politicians have to go through.
Question 1: Will the referendum be decided by votes from the heart or the head?
Ricky Ross said that voting from the heart will mean voting for fairness and democracy. The referendum is about choosing what kind of country voters want to live in. Scott Hastings said that politicians are telling us we have to be independent to be a great country, but “we are already a great country”.
Joan Burnie felt that in terms of head and heart, it’s a bit of both. She considers Scotland a different country, and that both it and England would be greater apart. The Westminster system is broken and the referendum will bring change.
Alan Savage pointed out that of the SNP’s 700-page campaign, only one page was on finance, showing they want people to vote from the heart. At this point the audience thought the panel were being a bit pedestrian, so one Scottish highlander gave an impassioned, bizarre speech from the heart. His hand was still raised as he did so, giving the awkward impression of a fascist salute. (If you have access to iPlayer, it starts at 6:58 – and he reappears at 29:20, with Dimbleby politely reminding him to lower his arm.)
The panel recovered from this to discuss the difficulties of knowing enough facts in advance of the referendum. The amount of revenue that will be generated from North Sea oil in the future is a relative unknown; the currency Scotland would use under independence is unknown; the processes of rejoining the EU and entering trade negotiations with other countries cannot currently be given accurate costings and timescales. Nobody could provide much detail for the voting with the head side of the argument, suggesting that an information vacuum would lead to voting from the heart. The audience (with the exception of the ranting highlander!) seemed hungry for more facts, and I hope we get them in the months to come.
Question 2: Are we as a society doing enough to protect our children from the people who abuse the power they wield?
Scott Hastings said there is a lot to be concerned about, due to revelations from such institutions as the BBC, Westminster and the Catholic Church, but there are good things being done at a Scottish level to ensure protection.
Joan Burnie questioned wisdom of appointing of “one of the establishment” to lead an examination of the establishment (referring to Butler-Sloss heading the enquiry into historical child abuse). She separately pointed out that family members are proportionally the most likely to be abusive, not members of the government or church.
Ricky Ross said it is a question of power and society must protect “its weakest and most vulnerable” members. A lot of things have not been dealt with properly in the past and we need more accountability. Alan Savage agreed that “power corrupts” and the actions coming to light are “reprehensible”.
David Dimbleby started an interesting side-topic at this point, referring to the remarks made by Norman Tebbit that in the 1970s there was a subconscious urge to protect the establishment, even if it meant covering up wrong actions. Joan Burnie said she was not only a journalist at the time but married to an MP, and she recognized the culture that Tebbit described, saying “there was a great deal of self-protection in all parties”. She added that paedophilia was a subject that was never talked about, so its victims felt they weren’t going to be believed.
Question 3: Are the new emergency data laws currently being rushed through unchallenged a further step towards a Big Brother society?
Alan Savage said it is a matter of where you draw the line between preventing crime and intruding privacy. He thinks we probably need to have the phone records for effective prosecution: “the end justifies the means”.
Scott Hastings, too, feels it is “not an invasion of civil liberties”.
Ricky Ross said there are two issues: the invasion of privacy and the fact MPs won’t have enough time to properly scrutinize the legislation. “Bad laws are usually made in haste.”
Joan Burnie also raised concerns about the rushed aspect and a potential blurring of responsibility.
Question 4: We need to be able to live with each other after the referendum. What can be done to take some of the unpleasantness out of the debate?
Alan Savage said the question of independence is always going to divide people, but you can be patriotic without being nationalistic.
Joan Burnie said social media shows people can be nasty and divisive over any topic, and there has been nastiness on both sides but it’s largely from trolling types.
Scott Hastings mentioned J. K. Rowling being targeted for abuse, and said unpleasantness is happening, but Scotland will move on after the vote.
Ricky Ross agreed that no matter which way the vote goes, Scotland will “pick itself up and move on” afterwards, and the debate is largely very civilized.
Although in places the content of the debate was too light on facts for my liking, it was incredibly refreshing to hear an hour-long political conversation without the usual party-focused tactics of batting the blame from the current government to the one previously in power (or all governments ever in the case of UKIP). The majority of audience contributions were thoughtful and perceptive. Oddly, of four the panelists I warmed most to Joan Burnie, despite not sharing her views on Scottish independence. Perhaps her background as an agony aunt came to the fore in connecting with the audience. Another significant element of this panel was that they didn’t shout over each other, which made it much more enjoyable to watch. Hopefully when Question Time returns in the autumn, the politicians will have watched this episode and taken a few notes.