Debating Debates and Debaters

With the Yes Scotland campaign boosted by the hugely successful Independence March and Rally, the ‘no’ side would appear still to be floundering in their attempt to put a case – any case – for staying in the Union. They don’t even seem able to find someone to make that case, as David Cameron has declined yet again to debate with Alex Salmond. Letters have been zipping back and forth between the two, with Cameron finding all kinds of reasons to dodge the debate.
Correspondence quoted in The Herald from Cameron to Salmond states that:
“…it is right for you and Alistair Darling, as the leaders of the respective campaigns with votes to cast as well as votes to win, to debate head-to-head on TV.”

This one statement reveals a number of things; firstly, that David Cameron isn’t aware that Alex Salmond, although First Minister and leader of the SNP, doesn’t actually have a formal role in the Yes Campaign. Yes Scotland’s advisory board is chaired by Dennis Canavan, who would logically be the equivalent person for Alistair Darling to debate with. Secondly, it’s clear that the intention by the First Minister is that he would put the case for a Scottish Parliament and Government with full powers, and the Prime Minister would defend the case for Westminster retaining overall control. Alistair Darling isn’t a member of the UK Government, and can’t therefore defend it’s position; he didn’t sign the Edinburgh Agreement, and is a backbench MP. It would be interesting to try and have the Labour party defend their Tory pals, but not particularly dignified. Thirdly, who does and doesn’t have a vote in the referendum doesn’t actually matter for this debate; if David Cameron happened to be representing a Scottish Constituency, that argument would automatically fall. He’s not being asked to the party as any old MP, but as the most senior British politician there is. If he isn’t confident enough to go on television to defend the Union, the ‘no’ campaign really is built on weak foundations.

I would like to see a series of debates: Salmond-Cameron, Canavan-Darling, Jenkins-McDougall. Having more women and people from a range of backgrounds would also be a huge bonus. As it stands, debates thus far have been of mixed quality: Nicola Sturgeon vs Anas Sarwar was allowed to descend into a rabble, where I was left in no doubt that I would have been more entertained had I continued to paint the hall ceiling rather than downing tools. Bickering politicians are a huge turn-off for the parts of the electorate thirsty for information, not soundbites, as well as being frustrating for those already engaged. By contrast, the BBC’s most recent debate (where the Labour Party were most aggrieved to have been left out) was actually a fairly thoughtful affair – John Swinney and Patrick Harvie were assured and sensible for Yes, and Annabel Goldie and Willie Rennie did their side credit. The audience made interesting points. The Radio 5 Live debate was a two-hour epic, but had some fantastic contributions by 15 year old Saffron Dickson and Radical Independence’s Tony Kenny.

There’s always the worry that ‘debate fatigue’ will set in, but with the various aspects of the arguments for independence being so wide, there’s actually a lot of scope there for broadcasters should they wish to take that up. Independence is interesting, and should be presented as such.

Smaller scale local events are also springing up all over the place, with the opportunity for the public to come and listen and put their own questions. At a local event in my own ward, women were keen to chat about the bedroom tax, and the people they knew who had been affected. They agreed that they couldn’t see a Scottish Government, closer to the people, bringing in such a measure and were moving towards voting yes.

The debate is wide, deep, and even a little shallow in places but the public are ready to join in. Senior UK politicians shouldn’t be so feart.

Votes at 16 approved

I was incredibly pleased to see Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Bill passed, which guarantees votes for 16 and 17 year olds in the referendum. As a former Convener of the YSI, this is an issue dear to my heart – young people are more than capable of making a choice on their nation’s future and I hope that the franchise will soon be extended for all elections.

The SNP has backed votes at 16 for many years now and (other than Health Board elections) this is the first time we’ve had the power to make it happen. I’m very proud of our Government for backing the principle.

I’m not sure if it’s co-incidental that Ed Miliband has, at last, got the Labour party on board for votes at 16; perhaps he can have a word to his colleagues in Glasgow City Chambers and the Scottish Parliament to back the move too!



Jimmy Halliday’s contributions to the Cause

To put matters into context, in 1955 the SNP contested only two Parliamentary seats in Scotland;  Dr Robert McIntyre fought Perth and East Perthshire, and Jimmy Halliday fought Stirling and Falkirk Burghs.   Jimmy then became the youngest ever SNP Chairman and served 1956 – 60;  in 1956 the entire SNP Conference delegates were photographed on the steps of the Allan Water Hotel, Bridge of Allan.


We are 12 months from a Referendum on Scottish Independence, which was unthinkable in 1955;  Jimmy died on 3rd January 2013 at the age of 85.  We intend to publish all Jimmy’s articles in the Scots Independent from August 2004 up to 2011, all the ones we have electronic input for.  It is anticipated we will publish a book on Jimmy’s contributions over many years, but this will have to wait until after the Referendum.


James Halliday

Veteran hard line nationalist and former SNP Chairman in conversation with James Taggart –    SI Jan 2006

Although I did not know it at the time, this was to be the last interview I did for the ‘Scots Independent’. However, it’s fitting to keep the best wine till last.  Jimmy Halliday and I have been close friends and political soul mates for a quarter of a century. In all that time we have disagreed on only one substantive political issue – his membership of the inopportune 1982 Campaign for Nationalism. An eminent Scottish historian by profession, Jimmy is also a superior writer. He has an extensive list of academic historical writing and an even longer list of political texts. This newspaper’s readers will best know him as a contributor over many years. His sparse writing style, efficient and lucid, contrasts somewhat with his approach to dialogue. I fully expect that every question I ask will elicit a discussion about its meaning before he embarks on a full response, amply illustrated with examples and anecdotes. In the event, I am not disappointed.

He is quite clear that the greatest influence in his life was his mother. One of a family of thirteen brought up in Tarbolton, she was a very well read woman whose opinions hardly ever coincided with Jimmy’s. This infuriated him as he grew up, but he came to realise that it had done him no harm. The mother’s ability to discuss all sorts of ideas had, he observes, a notably civilising influence on the son.

When I ask about his historical hero, he takes a deep breath and off he goes. “Wallace, by a short head, over Burns. Like Burns, ‘the story of Wallace poured a flood of Scottish prejudice into my veins’. It was probably my mother who told me the stories of Wallace. My favourite school reading book as a six-year-old was MacMillan’s ‘History of Scotland’. After that, somebody gave me a child’s edition of Scott’s ‘Tales of a Grandfather’ for my seventh birthday. I would argue that by that time I already was a nationalist. It was something I took for granted. I didn’t have to learn it; it was automatic.”

Jimmy’s self-education as a nationalist continued at secondary school. “I read the ‘Scots Independent’ in the public library in Greenock,” he recalls. “On my way home from school I would go down there every month, and there it was – up on the open shelves – in the reading room. I read it as it came out and kept in touch that way. So, as soon as I turned sixteen and was able to apply for membership, I joined the Scottish National Party. That would be in 1943.”

I am curious to hear of his memories during his time as SNP Leader. “Probably the first conference at Bridge of Allan (1956)”, he replies. “The whole conference had its photo taken on the steps of the Bridge of Allan Hotel. I remember applying standing orders to Roland Muirhead, much to his shock and horror. He was one of those who believed, as is often the case in the SNP, that the rules don’t apply to really important people.”

Jimmy’s last conference as Chairman, and my first as a member, was 1960 at the Golden Lion in Stirling. He told that conference of his decision to relinquish party leadership. “I feel it’s time for me to go,” he told members, “and I’m going before too many of you agree with me.” This is as close as Halliday gets to commenting (on the record) about his successors.

I ask Jimmy if he had had any memorable and formative political experience that moulded his philosophy. He is quite definite about the memory, and it still moves him to anger. “The depression was so real, with the terrible fear of unemployment. The shame that went with it is a thing that people have now forgotten – that awful feeling of failure. That sticks in the mind, and it was normality to me. To live through that depression as a child and adolescent, then to see it reappear in the Thatcher years – a thing that I never dreamed would ever be permitted to happen again – that was outrageous, diabolical. It left me with an absolute rage at any denial of dignity.”

Halliday is also quite definitive about his heroes. “William Wallace in history, Nye Bevan in politics. They shared the same characteristics – defiance, robustness, absolute honesty when the chips were down, justice and fairness writ large.” Jimmy has a poor view of the ‘Braveheart’ treatment of Wallace. “It was trivialising, and became an exercise in semi-pornography and sadism for entertainment.” We agree that Ian Cuthbertson’s portrayal of Wallace (in Sydney Goodsir Smith’s play) has been the best in living memory.

I ask Jimmy what political philosophy he represents within the SNP. The response is pure Halliday. “Well,” he says, somewhat testily, “I know what I represent, but I am sure many other people don’t know it. I am of the old left. I parted company with a lot of people in the SNP when the new left appeared. The new left, to me, is about as significant as wetting the bed. The old left believed in redistribution, in doing that as calmly and peaceably as possible. It pre-supposed a high level of taxation that would then be used to sustain the underprivileged – not just to sustain them in bread and circuses, but also to sustain and prepare them for better things. Internationally, one of the things that Robert McIntyre and I agreed on totally was identification with black Africa and the Indian sub-continent, particularly India. That’s where I’ve always been, that’s where I still find myself. I’ve never had occasion to vary from that position. I am very happy with the ‘social democratic’ label.”

I want to have Mr Halliday’s view about the prospects for Independence. Have they improved, I ask? “No.” Are we going backwards, then? “Yes.” Pressed to expand, Jimmy says: “I believe that our function as a party is to force the Labour party to do things it doesn’t want to do. The Scottish people would accept Independence by teatime tonight if Labour offered it. But they’re not interested if it’s offered by anyone other than Labour. Meanwhile Labour wants to run England, so it’s not going to offer Independence. That’s the dilemma we’re all stuck in. So what do we do? I don’t know. We haven’t found the answer yet. Jimmy Reid says that unless we win the West of Scotland, we will not achieve Independence. Of course, he’s dead right. What I would love to hear from that sage is just how we are meant to win the West of Scotland.”

Finally, I ask Jimmy Halliday if he will see Independence. “No, no, no, no. I’m now seventy-eight, so no chance. I would have liked to see us force Labour to offer Independence by threatening them with electoral defeat. They only offered devolution because we did precisely that. If they had suffered a fourth defeat, they may have been forced to offer Independence if only to save the Scottish people from Thatcherism. They came very near that, and devolution was their escape hatch. Devolution may well turn out to be a great opportunity, but the rationale behind it is all the seedy, ridiculous, laughable, silly, feckless, contemptible human emotion that crystallises in the claim ‘I am an MSP. I am God’s gift. Amn’t I marvellous and aren’t you marvellous too, my comrade.’ So their vanity will be sustained, and the final outcome may take twenty-five or thirty or forty years. I would have preferred a clean break. Nehru’s example still sends a tingle down my back: ‘At the stroke of midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.’ We’re never going to be able to say when it happens for Scotland, because everything is so thoroughly diluted and debased.”