Tough interrogation from pupils at Brae High hustings
Candidates might have been forgiven for thinking that a room of pupils too young to vote would be a gentle warm-up for Tuesday evening’s BBC Radio Shetland hustings recording.
Instead, the Westminster hopefuls had to contend with difficult questions and even some bruising blows from the Brae High School pupils on Tuesday afternoon.
Now a regular fixture in this constituency’s election calendar the event, chaired by history teacher Irvine Tait, saw the North Mainland’s youngsters justify with aplomb the Scottish government’s decision to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in Holyrood elections.
And despite not having a vote in the Westminster elections the pupils here showed that political debate will be in a healthy position for years to come.
Helen Balfour got the ball rolling by asking whether it was time to say “au revoir” to incumbent Alistair Carmichael and “bonjour” to the SNP’s Miriam Brett.
Mr Carmichael, unsurprisingly, asked to be judged on everything he “has achieved for the community”, in a knowing reference to the difficulties caused by the Frenchgate saga and his party’s five years in coalition with the Tories.
When asked later by Freya Balfour if he felt that the coalition had damaged his reputation Mr Carmichael said that it had done so among “progressive people” but that those five years could now be looked back on as a “period of strong and stable government” with the Liberal Democrats stopping the Tories from introducing a number of policies which have been unpopular in the two years since.
Miss Brett, on the other hand, said the time was right for Shetland to end decades of Liberal Democrat dominance. She believed that the party had “deviated” from what it once stood for.
Freya again posed a difficult question to the candidate tipped by some to end Mr Carmichael’s tenure as Shetland and Orkney MP by pointing out that in her manifesto “there’s nothing about policies”.
“Are you contesting the seat on personality, not policy?” Mr Tait asked the SNP candidate, off the back of this remark.
Labour candidate Robina Barton, in her first foray into the discussion, said that she did not “like this idea of a two-horse race”.
When asked later by pupil Vaila Tait whether Labour voters should put their votes elsewhere in order to make them count Ms Barton said that voters should not vote tactically but should, instead, “vote for what you believe in”.
Conservative Jamie Halcro Johnston, too, felt that voters were being sold a version of the electoral picture which “suits the SNP and the Liberal Democrats”. Scottish support for the Tories was on the up, he added.
Shetland and Orkney independence candidate Stuart Hill said, that the constituency was indeed a two-horse race, but not the one being portrayed in the media. Instead, he said, it was a race between him “and them”.
Commenting from the floor pupil Matthew Johnson jumped to Mr Camrichael’s defence, saying that the established politician had a “good record” in the school, having taken another pupil to London for work experience.
This pupil made regular incursions into the debate to side with Mr Carmichael, asking at one point whether it was best “in these times of upheaval” to stick with the candidate “we trust”.
On Trident Matthew landed one of the heaviest blows of the day, asking “does anyone understand Labour’s position” on the nuclear deterrent.
Ms Barton admitted it was an area where there was “definitely confusion” and conceded that the party’s leader does not agree with the overall party policy on nuclear weapons. She added that she sided with Jeremy Corbyn on this issue, saying that she would not be prepared to push the button.
Mr Halcro Johnston saw a nuclear deterrent as “a good idea”. He said that in light of increased aggression from Vladimir Putin’s Russia the weapons were necessary in order to “discourage” conflict. He added that the Labour leader was “essentially leading a party he is in great disagreement with.”
Miss Brett took a hardline approach on Trident, saying that the UK was “not normal in having nuclear weapons.” She was disgusted that the government continues to invest in weaponry “at a time of austerity” and went on to call the weapons an “insult to humanity”.
Taking a safer approach Mr Carmichael said that he wished nuclear weapons “had never actually been invented”. He said that the world was now different to the world nuclear weapons were invented for, but added that “you don’t just plan for the world as it is today but as it may develop”.
Stuart Hill chose to take aim at the political establishment in his answer, calling people who seek positions of power as “psychopathic tyrants”.
The devolved matter of education was next on the agenda, although it is largely an irrelevance to political parties in Scotland contesting the Westminster seat.
Candidates from the three unionist parties took the opportunity to put Miss Brett on the defensive here, challenging her party on their record on education.
Ms Barton said that she did not want the SNP to concentrate on holding Tories to account in Westminster. Instead, she wanted “the Tories out of Westminster” and the SNP to get on with governing Scotland, where they hold power. Their biggest failing locally, she felt, was education.
The attack on the SNP comes after a survey by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) found that scores for maths, reading and science had all declined under their leadership, despite the issue being made a “top priority” during the recent Holyrood elections.
Mr Halcro Johnston said it was “a big issue and an area of failure” for the party, while Mr Carmichael took aim at the Curriculum for Excellence, saying that it had “put appalling pressure on teachers and pupils”.
This was challenged by pupil Freya Balfour who stood up to ask Mr Carmichael, “how can you sit there and slag off the Curriculum for Excellence when you voted for it?”
The searing interrogation from the young pupil drew audible gasps and chuckles from an area near the back populated by nationalist lackeys including Lesley Riddoch, Jean Urquhart and Robbie McGregor.
Miss Brett, for her response, confessed that “the standards that we have seen have fallen below what was expected”.
Among all the debate, which sometimes required Mr Tait to employ his classroom skills to reign the bickering candidates in, no clear winner emerged.
At times all five candidates were placed on the defensive by a politically articulate audience eager to challenge them on questionable claims. Miss Brett and Mr Halcro Johnston, perhaps unsurprisingly given their parties’ positions of power, spent more time defending policies than proposing new ones.
Mr Carmichael had a tough time defending some moments in his recent past but had a strong locker of attack lines against the other parties to fall back on, alongside a decent support in the room, to see him through.
Mr Hill, largely without policies, was sidelined for much of the discussion while Ms Barton, perhaps more than any other candidate, was passionate and convincing, though she had the occasional deviation from her party’s official line.
Ukip candidate Robert Smith chose not to travel from Orkney for the debate.