It's been an interesting few days with independence almost dominating UK debate. First UK Labour leader Ed Miliband decided to tell the English to get interested in constitutional reform. Well, that's what I assumed he meant when I heard the headlines but was soon aghast at the ignorance displayed in his car crash of an interview with Channel Four's Krishnan Guru Murthy. Ed was all over the place saying Scots in a post-independence Britain would be disenfranchised (when he probably meant a post-indy England) & paying tribute to the Scot Keir Hardie who represented a Welsh seat in the "English parliament" (when he certainly meant the British Parliament). Ed thinks stoicism and not complaining define the English (though he doesn't mean the Scots are whingers) and the English have a strong desire to conserve things (though he doesn't mean they are natural Conservatives). Asked why he felt English, Ed listed the places in England he's been born, lived, gone to uni, worked etc. Asked if Englishness was therefore just a geographical accident he fell back on the stoicism and conservationism. Asked what difference Scottish independence would make, he said: "We'd be worse off economically." I'm guessing Miliband would maintain Scotland would also be worse off in a zero sum game of "separation" and diseconomies of scale. But it did sound like an admission that Scotland is indeed no subsidy junkie and contributes more through oil and gas revenues than it currently receives. Oh dear. This was like going out in a monsoon wearing a paper bag. Clearly Miliband has never thought deeply about identity in the UK, knows hee-haw about Scotland and believes "delivering messages" shorn of insight or emotional truth is good enough for a political leader. Nul points. Anyway, make your own mind up by watching here.
Later the Beeb was trying to create a representative panel for Question Time in Inverness. BBCQT has some hard to reconcile aims. The programme wants to be local without getting "bogged down" in local issues; to cover independence in a way that satisfies Scottish and non-Scottish audiences simultaneously and to respond to complaints about SNP under-representation without "losing" any of the unionist panellists they'd already booked.
The solution was an overloaded six person panel with actor Alan Cumming (cheeky smile) and Infrastructure Minister Alex Neil (wicked smile) on the pro indy side and a toiling Charles Kennedy (weary smile) former Tory Scots Secretary Michael Forsyth (hysterical laugh) , Melanie Phillips (utterly sombre) and Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont (grim and strangely nervous) on the other.
The strain of having the BBC dog wagged by the SNP tail showed within seconds as Dimbleby ungraciously forewarned all panellists to keep their comments brief on account of the panel's unwieldy size. Mmmm, it was the BBC who chose to have 6 panellists instead of changing their normal selection criteria. All but the old hands (Forsyth and Kennedy) were peremptorily interrupted and the ensuing debate was staccato and unconstructive – for any kind of viewer.
The audience was even stranger. One tweeter diplomatically observed, "I had no idea so few Scottish people lived in Inverness." I thought the audience was not just full of voluble English folk (which happens since Highland Scots can be strangely passive in public meetings) – but some easily identifiable audience members were chosen to speak several times even though other hands were in the air. Strange.
The atmosphere felt guarded thanks to the overpacked panel, silent audience and general feeling that the BBC were tolerating not exploring the reality of their location. Dimbleby was obviously hacked off when anyone strayed onto a Scottish theme or perspective on UK or international issues. Happily though, nobody puts Alan Cumming in the corner. His clear-eyed, straight-talking, unafraid style was simply glorious to behold. Mr Miliband – take a few tips from the cabaretmeister next time. Better still, come and spend the summer in Scotland.