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Grown-up debate at the Edinburgh Fringe
I’m no fan of political debate as entertainment. But I’m taking part in a ‘show’ discussing Scottish independence on Sunday – and here’s why.
I’m off to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this weekend. It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday as I am speaking on Sunday at the final show of a series of mock parliamentary debates, The Ayes Have It!, organised by the former first minister of Scotland and leader of Alba, Alex Salmond. He will propose the motion, ‘This House believes Scotland should be independent’, and former Brexit secretary, Conservative MP David Davis, will lead the opposition. I will take to the stage in front of a 450-capacity audience in the Assembly Spiegeltent in George Square. I will be joining Davis on Team Union.
Salmond and Davis have been joined by different speakers over the course of the event’s festival run. John Bercow, the former speaker of the House of Commons, has chaired, starting proceedings with his renowned shout of ‘Order! Order!’ The evening starts with a prerecorded video message from Succession's Brian Cox - in character as media mogul Logan Roy - telling the audience to enjoy themselves, ‘or else’.
One reviewer described the evening shows so far as ‘politics as showbiz’. I am not usually keen on debate as entertainment, but when asked to be one of the ‘cast’ by the director, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, I said yes because, let’s be frank, these days political debate is in a perilous state.
The contemporary public square is dominated by a toxic mix of refusing to engage with political opponents, often using the excuse that they are beyond-the-pale bigots, or even those ‘cancel culture’ attempts to prevent other people’s debates and political events from happening. The need for passionate but civil debate has never been more pressing, cutting across new and deep dividing lines in society and transcending inward-looking social-media silos and ‘echo-chambers’. Such regressive trends are exactly what we hope the Battle of Ideas festival is an antidote to. Any initiative that encourages speakers and audiences to hear diverse views and constructive argument should be encouraged.
For many years, the Academy of Ideas was commissioned to organise debates as part of the Edinburgh festivals (late-night live reviewing panels for the Fringe and a series of panel discussions at the Edinburgh International Book Festival). This tradition of encouraging lively public exchanges has declined, as the commitment to free speech has waned.
This year, climate activist Greta Thunberg has pulled out of an appearance at the Book Festival because the festival receives sponsorship from Baillie Gifford, an investment firm she alleges has links to the fossil fuel industry. For goodness’s sake – Greta agreed to speak but let organisers down, demanding the event passed some purity test. At a financially challenging time - when arts, literary and ideas festivals struggle to secure financial support (as I know from bitter experience) - this is just one example of the mood of intolerance and narcissism that surrounds public discussion.
You can support the work of the Academy of Ideas in opening up spaces for passionate but civil public debate by becoming a paid subscriber to this Substack.
More familiar, but still shocking, was the headline news that the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, Joanna Cherry, will have heavy security in place for her own Fringe show at the Stand Comedy Club tomorrow. This was after Cherry had to threaten the venue with legal action after her appearance was initially cancelled, saying she was removed from the billing as a result of ‘being a lesbian with gender-critical views’. You’d think an appearance by Cherry represented some sort of threat to national security. All this for believing that somebody’s sex is immutable.
Joanna and I don’t agree on many issues politically, not least that Scotland should leave the UK. Indeed, she argued the opposite, backing Alex Salmond, on the opening night of The Ayes Have It!. She is a feisty and formidable opponent. But I am not scared of her or her views (and, I am sure, vice versa) because we are grown-up women who understand the importance of political debate. For her resilience in facing down bullies, her passion for her principled political views and her great humour and buoyancy when facing abuse, Joanna is one of the MPs I most admire in Westminster.
In that spirit, I venture into Edinburgh to argue against independence based on my own principles - and with a little help from the arguments so well laid out by my colleague Alastair Donald in his excellent Letter on Liberty, The Scottish Question.
The final thing that clinched it for me to take part was on hearing that on every night of the show, each side will have a third speaker from a local high school (see more here). In honour of the brilliant work of the Debating Matters competition for sixth-formers, which started life as an Academy of Ideas project, I couldn’t say no.
So, if you are in Edinburgh at the weekend, do come along – see here for ticket details. If you can’t make it, there is still time to buy an early-bird ticket for the Battle of Ideas festival, sessions of which we will be previewing here regularly. And yes, there's a panel debate on Scotland. Either way, keeping the spirit of open dialogue and debate is essential for democratic change to be possible. Whatever side of the political divide you are on, that should be a priority for us all.