Ian Swanson: Shutting down debate? We need to talk, Mrs May

The chips are down for Prime Minister Theresa May - but she seems intent on shutting down debate. Picture: Dylan Martinez/PA Wire
The chips are down for Prime Minister Theresa May - but she seems intent on shutting down debate. Picture: Dylan Martinez/PA Wire
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WITH all the general election talk in the air and pictures of ­campaigning Westminster leaders dominating the TV news, it might be easy for some people to forget the vote that is happening tomorrow.

The council elections have been largely overshadowed since Theresa May’s surprise announcement of a general election next month. But even before that, the local elections were being described as an opportunity to “send a message” about a ­second independence referendum.

The real opportunity, however, is to help decide who runs Edinburgh until 2022 – and that’s too important to be cast aside for the sake of passing a ­verdict on an issue which is ­completely outside council control.

Spending cuts, overflowing bins, housing shortages, the proposed tram extension and developments in the green belt may not be glamorous topics commanding national headlines.

But these are matters which ­concern people and have a direct impact on their day-to-day lives. It is only right that proper attention is given to choosing those who will make the crucial decisions for the Capital for the next five years.

Democracy is government by ­discussion, in the phrase of Walter Bagehot, the 19th century commentator on the constitution.

There have been various hustings events in different parts of the city in the run-up to the council elections and no doubt there will be more before June 8.

But some national political leaders have shown a marked aversion to discussion, not least the Prime Minister.

Theresa May is refusing to take part in a TV debate with the leaders of the other parties, although this seemed to have become an established part of general elections.

And beyond a private chat with a few voters on their doorsteps, her idea of engagement with the public seems to involve visiting a factory once the workers have been sent home and party supporters have been bussed in to provide an audience.

Televised debates can be over-rated – the 2010 clashes seemed to dominate the campaign and briefly made Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg a political star, only for his party to lose rather than gain seats.

David Cameron was reluctant to take on his rivals in 2015 and in the end appeared in only one face-to-face debate. But these set-piece occasions allow people to see those competing for power in action against each other, being put on the spot, having to face an audience and think on their feet.

In an election where leadership is being made the big issue it seems ­particularly wrong to deny the voters this chance.

But it fits with other evidence of Mrs May’s reluctance to get involved in debate or discussion. She did not want parliament to have a say on ­triggering Article 50 and spent taxpayers’ money fighting a court case to try to stop it – even though it eventually sailed through.

And when the Scottish Parliament requested powers to hold a second independence, Mrs May refused even to discuss it, resorting instead to repeating her “now is not the time” mantra.

Someone should tell the Prime ­Minister that it’s good to talk – and also to listen, and to go on talking and listening. That’s what democracy demands.