Why Nicola Sturgeon should be in the Brexit TV debate

If Theresa May truly cares about the Union, she must allow a Scottish voice to be heard. 

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Life is short, so why Theresa May is spending valuable hours she’ll never get back touring the country to sell her Brexit deal to a public that has no say baffles me. Similarly, with the proposed TV debate - what’s it for? What can we do with it?

Whatever the opposite of box office is, it looks something like May vs. Corbyn on Sunday prime-time. They are the two least competent media performers ever to have led the two main parties. PMQs is a weekly dirge. They’re terrible debaters - one a wooden marionette pumping out pre-prepared lines ad nauseam, the other a protest junkie who can’t do detail. They have nothing new to tell us, and no talent for the form.

It is also vaguely insulting to the electorate to make this a head-to-head between the PM and the leader of the Opposition. There are a number of widely-held views and potential outcomes which, in this scenario, get no hearing. So if tis to be done, tis better that it is done well. The least the broadcasters could do is find space for Nicola Sturgeon, perhaps the most credible champion of a second referendum or, in its absence, the softest possible Brexit.

It’s not that Sturgeon is the perfect debater. She can be overly aggressive. She has her own, very obvious, ulterior motive when arriving at her arguments. She uses force rather than poetry to get her points across. But she is more than competent, and competent would be enough to beat the low-quality opponents she would face. Plus, she speaks fluent human – which would make a nice change.

It would also be sensible for the future of the Union that Theresa May insists she cares so deeply about, to allow a Scottish voice to be heard (and a Northern Irish voice, for that matter). Two unimpressive English leaders, whose personal views on Brexit don’t match those of many in their own parties, talking about  “what the British people want”, will not go down well in the country’s northern nation, where 62 per cent voted Remain. All this does is serve to emphasise difference, remoteness, and incompatibility. A smart Unionist would be thinking about reaching out to the Scots, not ignoring them.

It’s also not as if Sturgeon doesn’t have her own weak spots. The charge that she wants to pile upheaval upon upheaval is a legitimate one. Equally, her position in favour of the UK remaining in the single market and the customs union isn’t quite what it seems either. While there will be a degree of principle and fellow-feeling behind it, the SNP leader also knows that the economic rupture between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would be more easily managed (and sold) if both nations were still in the single market.

In 2016, Scotland exported more than £45bn in goods and services to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, compared to £12.7bn to the EU. Of Scotland’s total exports, 61 per cent go to the rest of the UK. This remains a thorn in the Nats’ side - aren’t they arguing for Scotland to do basically the same thing - economic self-harm - for which they’re criticising the Brexiteers?

So, if there’s to be a debate, let’s have a good old British scrap, with all sides represented. Stick Boris Johnson on there too, so the No Dealers have a voice. At least that would give us something worth watching.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).