The Speigeltent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was near stowed for what promised to be a lively debate on whether, after the election of a majority SNP administration to the Scottish Parliament, we were about to experience the end of Union as we had known it.
Speakers at the event were Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, journalist and author Neal Ascherson, and Mike Russell, Minister in the present SNP administration at Holyrood. The event was chaired by Magnus Linklater, Editor of ‘The Times’.
The debate itself, however, failed to live up to the promise of its title, or to further the level of discussion around this subject which is presently the common currency of Scotland’s chattering classes.
Menzies Campbell seemed a little uncomfortable when trying to defend the present Union whilst advocating federalism as part of a package of constitutional reform, which has long been the Liberal Democrat position, at least in manifesto terms.
Neal Ascherson, self-confessedly a London based journalist these days, seemed even more uncomfortable as the presumed (at least by the Chair) voice of moderation. His own position rapidly revealed itself as being pretty far from the middle of the road, although he was the only speaker to suggest that an end to Union would prove a greater difficulty for England than Scotland. Although many English people might be delighted to be shot of those troublesome people from Jockshire, the resulting absence could well throw that country’s present difficulties and internal divisions into even sharper relief.
The night, if not all the arguments, belonged to Mike Russell. He demonstrated considerable command of both the facts and the floor, dealt ably with questions and cavils from the other two speakers and succeeded in presenting the face of moderate and thoughtful nationalism throughout. If he, along with Menzies Campbell, descended occasionally to party political rhetoric or point-scoring, these interludes were mercifully brief.
It was a pity, then, that when the debate was opened up to the audience it descended rapidly to partisan level and to questioning not merely beyond the appropriate levels for such a debate but into areas where not even the best-briefed and informed of politicians yet have answers.
The great debate itself, of course, has yet to happen and appears some way off. A straw poll on the night suggested an audience almost equally divided between supporters and opponents of the present situation. Whatever may, or may not emerge as the settled will of the Scottish people has nevertheless yet to be undecided.
Event: 19 August, 2011