Why debate matters

by | 20 Feb 2023

Leadership debates aren't only about selecting leaders, they are one of the few chances a political party gets to debate its own future. It is that which members of the SNP have had taken away.

So long after Aristotle, so long after Hegel, do we really need to make the case for debate? That concept of thesis (here’s an idea), antithesis (here’s a different idea), synthesis (here’s what we’re left with as these two ideas explore each other) isn’t that far out of fashion, is it?

As I wrote on Friday, in Murrell’s SNP it is. The SNP leadership contest is a pretty grotesque distortion of what debate is about, about what democracy is about. I think it is now pretty clear that the Sturgeon/Murrell machine doesn’t care at all about what SNP members think about the future, it is only interested in preventing the SNP from thinking at all. Full stop.

I’m sure some people may wonder what is really so bad about a fast contest. You might imagine it is just my preference for outsider candidates who were long-shots before a long campaign enabled them to gain momentum (which is how Bill Clinton, David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn came to power).

But that isn’t what I’m thinking about here. Debate isn’t just a selection process, it is also a shaping process. It’s that’s Hegelian synthesis again, the alchemy of debate which allows a new and hopefully better idea emerge from the interaction of two other ideas.

The case study is Joe Biden. Biden is a lifelong time-server, someone whose best friend wouldn’t call him exciting. He’s a machine politician. Literally no-one was enthusiastic when he entered the race. But it quickly became clear that there was excitement in the race – and it all belonged to Bernie Sanders.

This prompted the Democrat establishment to pull its usual stitch-up. The party machinery twisted the arm of almost all the remaining candidates to pull out, endorse Biden and prevent the momentum around Sanders from building any further. It worked.

But it didn’t stop the debates, and the consequence of that is enormous. Because while Bernie Sanders stood little chance from the moment the fix was in, still he drove the content of all the debates. He raised issues which had not been raised before in mainstream Democrat politics. And they turned out to be really popular.

The establishment of the party rigged the vote to prevent any chance the left could win, but it had no way it could stop left ideas being exposed during the campaign. And the whole party changed as a result. It dragged Biden to places he would not otherwise have gone.

Debate isn’t just a selection process, it is also a shaping process

The result (as almost all commentators agree) is that Biden is only competitive now because of the things he was dragged into doing by the left. It is the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that are keeping his administration afloat.

Take that away and you’re left with an aged machine politician who is prone to gaffs and has among the lowest approval ratings for any president in history, below even Trump at the same point in the electoral cycle. It is the things that were done that matter, not the individual – and those are a result of a proper process of debate inside the party.

That is what the SNP is flushing down the toilet right now. For the last ten years the SNP has been without meaningful debate. It has been a top-down system of ‘here’s what you’re getting’. Sure the party conference debates motions, but the leadership simply prevented motions it didn’t want from getting on the agenda. Those that did get on the agenda and were passed against their will were simply ignored.

It is remarkable that there has not been a single debate about independence or independence strategy in those ten years (other than the stitch-up that was the Growth Commission motion, an exact example of all that is wrong). The party has had no chance to decide what it is, or what it should be. Everything has been dictated to it.

That is what was so important about this leadership process. It didn’t just offer an opportunity to select a new leader, it gave the members a chance to hear about different views on the future of the party and to debate these ideas themselves.

That has been largely taken away from them. What we are left with looks like not much more than the existing party elite trying to block any chance of change. But is protecting the machinery which got the SNP in this mess a good idea? I can’t see how. Doing a bit more of what it is doing isn’t going to lead to a breakthrough.

If the future can never be an alternative to the past, you are quite literally stuck in the past, hoping no-one notices

It is very hard not to feel that they have selected Humza as a ‘keep the payroll in their jobs’ candidate, more of the same, no reappraisal of direction. Fine – perhaps the ideas that will emerge from the other candidates make ‘steady as she goes’ the best option.

But how will we know? How will members have time to consider for themselves what they want from their own party? It is not just the stitch-up that should bother members, its the fact that this is precisely how institutions fossilize. If the future can never be an alternative to the past, you are quite literally stuck in the past, hoping no-one notices.

Team Sturgeon has argued relentlessly over the last almost-decade that her strategising was operating at a level somewhere above that of us mere mortals. If that is true then they have absolutely nothing to be afraid of. That’s the thing about the process of debate; if you really have a very strong position and your opponents have weaker positions, you actively want to debate.

This suppression of internal democracy is a sign not of strength but of weakness. I can understand why they’re so worried – the mood music I’m picking up on right now is that people who would previously have described themselves as loyal to Sturgeon are starting to realise just how little she achieved and just now much of a mess she has bequeathed.

She inherited a government which was in good shape, an independence campaign that had momentum and a party which was incredibly united – and she reversed all three during her tenure. And it all happened without debate.

So it was lack of debate which got the SNP into the position in which it finds itself and its best bet for getting back out of that hole was to have a debate. No, it wouldn’t all have been comfortable for the party’s elite. But the SNP has bigger problems right now than the comfort of its elite.

If the SNP is incapable of debating its future, what hope is there for that future? This isn’t just about who gets to be leader, its about what they’re leading and where they’re leading it to. It was the best opportunity the party had to renew itself. It is an opportunity the party has had snatched from it. And it will pay a price…

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