Last Thursday, the BBC staged its first live televised EU referendum debate in Glasgow, hosted by Victoria Derbyshire. DARROW’s William Hingley was there in our first major live tweeting event. The panel included Liam Fox MP, former Conservative Defence Secretary, Diane James MEP, Deputy Chair of UKIP, Alan Johnson, former Labour Home Secretary, and Alex Salmond, former Scottish First Minister. The audience for this debate were between the ages of 18-29 in order to address the observed voter apathy with this age group. For more DARROW content and live tweeting from future events, you can follow us on Twitter via the handle @DarrowUK. In this article, he gives us an insider perspective as to the events of the night.
Glasgow provided the perfect backdrop for the first major televised EU referendum debate, particularly as less than two years previously Scotland was of course in the thick of its independence referendum. In the days before the debate, the Twitterati were out in force, many claiming that the fact the debate was being held in Glasgow fed into pro-EU BBC bias, given that polling indicates that Scotland is more pro-European in comparison to other regions of the UK. In light of this, it’s important to note that the audience was selected, and quite literally flown in, from all corners of the UK. In addition, the audience was split equally between advocates of remaining within and leaving the EU; with a slightly higher number of undecided voters.
The vast array of different people within the audience provided a great opportunity for conversation, even before the scheduled debate began. In particular for myself, as an Englishman living in Wales, I found talking to several Scots who had voted “yes” in the Scottish referendum highly interesting. Ever since the result of that referendum I had quietly considered Scottish independence to be more-or-less inevitable at some stage in the future, yet when talking to those who voted for independence, I found that they had not done so because they fully bought into the SNP’s case for independence, but they were merely fed up of Westminster taking Scotland for granted. Indeed, one young voter I spoke to stated that she and many of her friends would prefer a federal structure to full-blown independence. As a unionist, this provided me with a level of hope that the proportion of the 45 per cent of Scots who voted “yes” could one day be convinced to vote “no” in a future referendum. In saying this, I’m not implying this was in any way a representative sample of Scottish voters, but it provided me with optimism that the political make-up of Scotland is not as pro-independence as many would like to make out.
Likewise, when talking to fellow audience members about the EU referendum, it soon became clear that those advocated a “leave” vote were often far more forceful in their views than those wanting a “remain” vote. There were even several audience members complaining of BBC bias towards a “remain” vote, despite being asked on a national television programme to voice their opinions! That said, it was fantastic to see so many young people engaged in lively debate about an issue which will fundamentally affect their lives. It was also clear that every effort had been taken by the BBC to promote balance within this programme, although no doubt Victoria Derbyshire’s quip that we were “all in this together” will give the conspiracy theorists something to blog about.
Moving onto the actual debate, it was clear from the off that this was not going to be a calm interaction. The key themes which ran through the night were: immigration, education, employment and voter apathy. Considering immigration, although it was raised several times by audience members (most notably the infamous Emily, alluding to her mother’s council house), UKIP MEP Diane James appeared unable to respond to a point made on any topic without referring to the perceived negatives of immigration. Despite the leave camp’s preoccupation with immigration, they seemed unable to answer Alan Johnson’s valid point about the Northern Irish border leaving the UK open to the principle of freedom of movement from the EU by default, even after a Brexit. I asked Liam Fox MP to address this point after Diane James MEP failed to do so and he alluded to the arrangement we have had with Northern Ireland for decades, failing to address the issue of EU nationals flying into the Republic of Ireland and crossing this unenforced border of their own accord.
The remain camp didn’t always put forward their strongest case for staying within the EU, with audience members citing mobile roaming charges as a key strength of the EU. Even as somebody who will likely vote to remain, this appeared to me to be a pretty trivial point to make. Likewise, when panel members speak of a need to “reform” the EU if we vote to remain, there is a lack of a clear narrative for voters as to what this reform agenda would entail. Many towards the centre-left of British politics would love to see robust reform of the EU, in terms of increasing accountability and increased power at the member-state level on issues of fundamental national interest, yet the left seem to have an inability to provide a coherent pathway for future change.
In terms of voter apathy, not a great deal occurred within this hour to appease this issue. This wasn’t necessarily just the fault of the panel, however. At times, audience members turned what should have been a reasoned debate into a slanging match which at times appeared to be a competition to see who could go viral on YouTube first. I think we should spend a little less time debating whether or not either side is engaging in “project fear” (which surely is inevitable to some extent?) and instead deal with the key issues surrounding the way in which we would like the UK to be governed.
Overall, it was a feisty debate but whether or not it will actually have helped to convince any swing voters as to which way to cast their ballot on 23rd June is questionable. It was, however, refreshing to see so many young people engaged in the political process. Whichever way you’re leaning towards voting, make sure you register by 7th June to ensure your voice gets heard!
5 funny facts about the night:
1: Victoria Derbyshire swears like a trooper when off camera (her favourite word appears to be “shit”)! She was genuinely very funny, even asking Alex Salmond “if you’re going to win this one”, referring to his failure in securing a “yes” vote for Scottish Independence.
2: The venue in Glasgow was quite old and the roof was leaking so a tarpaulin had to be constructed over the heads of the panellists, just off camera.
3: The director of the programme, upon hearing an ambulance siren said: “oh, don’t worry about that, that’s just a Glasgow taxi”.
4: Diane James looked thoroughly depressed when she showed up at the hotel following the debate, perhaps because one audience member was rumoured to call her a “racist b***h” after filming.
5: Victoria Derbyshire twice stated that “we’re all in this together”, referring to being in a televised debate. Perhaps these “a la Cameron” words weren’t the best choice…
You can follow me on Twitter @William_Hingley.