City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Book Festival: James Naughtie, A New Era for British Democracy?

By Allan Alstead - Posted on 25 August 2015

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James Naughtie with Magnus Linklater in the Chair

With Magnus Linklater in the chair the speaker, James Naughtie was introduced to a packed audience as someone who had presented the BBC Today programme for some 21 years - predictably he received a round of applause. However, he did then warn his audience that he might well be heard of more on Radio 4 following the change later this year, so he extended his sympathy to the audience.

Talking about dealing with SNP supporters he said that he had been talking to Jim Murphy who described the experience as being involved with a "quasi religious rock concert". Naughtie said that their philosophy seemed to be "we are the SNP so we are different". This was all very well except when talking about specifics such as education, where standards were falling and further education colleges were closing. He said the realities of the situation were not appreciated. However, at the General Election the SNP had swept away all but three of the sitting members or their party nominees.

By any stretch of the imagination this was remarkable - was it a pent-up frustration over independence or was it a frustration with Labour, or perhaps a bit of both? There is the extraordinary fact that UKIP got some four million votes yet only managed to produce one MP, due to the way the 'first past the post' electoral system works. This lack of representation must strengthen the case for some form of proportional representation sometime in the future.

Naughtie touched on the situation in the United States where there is the extraordinary 'Trump phenomenon' with the support for Trump coming from the extreme right of the Republican Party. He mentioned Scott Walker, a tough Republican Governor who he had met and when questioned about independence, refused to even think about the subject let alone make any pronouncements.

Turning back to the situation in the UK, Naughtie said that back in 1964 people voted 94% for the main political parties, but now this is down to the low 60% levels. Here the rise and fall of the LibDems with increased support for UKIP and the SNP together with the Greens have led the growth of 'alternative parties', most of which are at right angles to the beliefs of those in the main left and right parties.

There are many Conservative MPs who cannot bear Cameron and who think he is wrong on Europe, but there is also currently the struggle in the Labour for the leadership with the two groups threatening to split the party. In his view the stage is set for a battle royal within the two main parties over the next year.

This demise of the main parties has been caused by the explosion in the social media area and a loss of trust in politicians in general and especially of those in the House of Commons. Naughtie felt that in some cases this was sad as the individual was not deliberately trying to cheat the system, they were simply misled into making incorrect claims - this is in sharp contrast where some people who were deliberately trying to make a lot of money out of the system.

Speaking about the House of Lords, Naughtie felt that while the whole concept was wrong and it would never have been designed in this way starting from scratch, however, it actually worked and the great majority of amendments it made to Bills were accepted back by the Commons. Where sensible changes are suggested these go through, while the Commons retains the right to veto any decision by the Upper House.

Linklater asked what would happen if Labour and the SNP were to confront the realities of the economy? Naughtie suggested that there were actually limits on what could happen and if, say, Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister he would have to confront these realities. These things have to be appreciated.

When asked by Linklater about Nick Robinson, the outgoing BBC Political Editor, who likened the 4,000 people who demonstrated outside the Glasgow headquarters of the BBC, which Robinson thought looked more like Vladimir Putin's Russia, Naughtie defended both the BBC and Nick Robinson. He suggested that the former First Minister needed to "move on" and not still try to pick up this problem again a year after it had taken place. He added that although Salmond had called this a "joyous" demonstration Nicola Sturgeon had taken a completely different line. Naughtie also rejected the charge by Salmond that the BBC had been less than even handed in its reporting of the referendum. He referred specifically to the debate by young voters and the many ways that the BBC had given each side an equal hearing which was the behaviour of a "responsible public broadcaster."

When asked from the audience why the opinion polls had got things so wrong about the election in May, Naughtie said that it was difficult if people did not want to tell you how they might vote and the only accurate poll was the exit poll. For Cameron to say that "we knew" was rubbish as everyone was in the dark about the result.

He added that it would be interesting to see if Jeremy Corbyn was as popular in the ballot box as he seemed to be at the moment. Currently he has a huge following with upwards of a thousand people attending his meetings and there are then discussions in the street after the meeting - he does seem to have a strong following.

One of the last comments from the audience was that the SNP has the advantage that many of them have actually worked for a living. Naughtie agreed and said that some of them are even middle-aged which may be an advantage.