On 25 January (to coincide with Burns’ Night) Alex Salmond launched the SNP’s independence referendum consultation paper, and at night you could watch on TV for an hour the BBC’s first “Big Debate” related to the issue. I couldn’t. I mean, not on TV. Not the full hour anyway.
Hey guys – I sat in the audience.
How come? Some two weeks earlier the station published an “audience plea” on its Scotland news website; several days later it reappeared there, from which I judged not enough people had shown interest. So I applied myself, just for the fun of it. Rather surprisingly, in the end I was among those selected (there were no unoccupied chairs so presumably there was a selection, unless they filled some places with BBC staff).
It was the first time I took part in anything of this sort, so I have several memories which will probably stay in my memory for quite some time, but I will only bother you with three.
1) When the BBC says “live”, it doesn’t necessarily mean “live” as you and I understand the word. The debate began more than an hour before the hour-long broadcast, and I got home before the broadcast ended. I later saw it on iPlayer and I don’t think they actually made any cuts except perhaps shortening the applause now and then to make it fit precisely into the time-frame; maybe this is just their way to ensure that they can cut out somebody beginning to use taboo words if that happens. But the moment when the debate ended and the presenter began then telling the TV-viewers he hoped they would join us for a debate just about to begin was unforgettably schizophrenic.
2) Politicians don’t have such easy lives after all. I was sitting together with the rest of the audience in the foyer, when a woman approached the reception desk. She seemed vaguely familiar to me, but she met my eyes and mouthed a “Hello” before I identified her as Nicola Sturgeon. Shortly later, passing me on her way to the studio, she added (without slowing down of course) a “How are you?”, accompanied by a pat on my shoulder*. As she had never seen me before, and given my moustache and large eyes could hardly have mistaken me for somebody else, it shows that kissing strange babies probably isn’t the only thing politicians have to endure in their attempts to gain as much popularity as possible.
They also sometimes have to defend the indefensible, like I did when I was still a white-collar worker. Johann Lamont and Jim Wallace had a hard time trying to explain why “we support extending the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds, but not for this referendum, which has nothing to do with the fact that the polls show this would lessen the chances of our preferred outcome”. (Don’t get me wrong – I believe that the SNP is so keen on extending the franchise for this very reason as well.) Which gets me to the last memory:
3) I’m not the only cynic here. I mean, after some time I couldn’t help noticing which of my closest neighbours were more likely to applaud which of the speakers. After some more time I couldn’t help noticing that many were quite ready to applaud a good argument even if it was an argument “against their allegiances”. Arguably the biggest applause happened when a young woman argued with Wallace about the franchise extension, the presenter after some time cut her short pointing out that being 20 she’d have the right to vote anyway, called another member of the audience, and this guy felled Wallace with (verbatim quote) “I’m 15 years old, so in 2014 I’ll be 17, tell me what gives you the ability to deny my right to therefore shape the future of the country I’m going to live in…”
* Incidentally: was I excited by the fact that the Deputy First Minister of Scotland spoke to me and patted me on the shoulder? In a sense, I was. In the sense of Wow, what a yarn this’ll be for my friends to laugh about!