Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

In the very first answer of the hustings, barely five minutes in, Angus Robertson (SNP) encouraged young people to vote, even if they wouldn’t be voting for him or his party. This would set the tone for the rest of the debate, with candidates frequently agreeing with each other, recognising the value in each other’s answers, and speaking (for the most part) calmly and respectfully.

The opening statements, tied in with a question about ensuring economic opportunities for today’s graduates, gave us mild and clearly pre-prepared answers. All parties answered well, broadly covering recovery from COVID-19, investment in green jobs, and providing quality opportunities for graduates.

The first stand-alone question asked how their parties would address climate change, considering 95% of students placed it in their top three priorities. The answers diverged, and were almost all indicative of what each party traditionally stands for. Sarah Boyack (Labour) was – perhaps predictably – employment-focused, highlighting the need for renewable energy companies to source labour from local areas. Carole Ford (Liberal Democrat) talked about green transport, active travel and reopening defunct railway lines. Robertson claimed that 97.4% of Scotland’s energy needs were met by renewables in the last year; independence would allow us to push further with our green trajectory. Kate Nevens (Green), in one of the few direct contradictions of the hustings, raised the fact that Scotland’s carbon emissions continue to increase, and that the SNP had committed over £150 million to new roads, arguing that we should instead be divesting and building a circular economy. Finally, Miles Briggs (Conservative) put forward the need to improve recycling facilities, placing a greater emphasis on individual actions than the others.

A later question asked about candidates’ anti-racist policies. The differing approaches, once again, seemed to highlight the fundamentals of each party’s perspective. Briggs wants to raise the profile of anti-racist organisations. Ford wants to reduce racism through education and legislation. Nevens recognises racism as a structural issue. Boyack highlighted the intersectionality of the issue, and Robertson mentioned the need for greater diversity in Parliament.

Despite one relatively heated discussion over the UK Parliament’s decision to take two Holyrood Bills to the Supreme Court, the overarching atmosphere in the event was consensus. Everyone broadly seemed to agree on what should be done, though they had different perspectives on how to put this into practice. For the SNP, Scotland needs full parliamentary power. For the Liberal Democrats, focusing on recovering from the pandemic will do the trick. The Greens want to dismantle and rebuild, not adjust. The Labour Party want decentralisation and people-powered movements. The Conservatives believe in the power of individual action.

This type of political discussion felt refreshing, if a little dull. Why did this event, between five different political party candidates, held three weeks away from an important election, feel so calm, measured, and… lacklustre?

One explanation could be the voting system in the Scottish parliament. The Additional Member System makes coalition – or minority governments – more likely, particularly when compared to First Past the Post, the system used in Westminster. Parties and politicians appear more open to the idea of cross-party collaboration, and mutual respect is recognised as necessary for Holyrood to function. Additionally, providing voters with two votes allows us to acknowledge the complex political identities, cutting across party lines, that can be held by a single person.

Another reason could be that online hustings reduces feelings of hostility. Getting worked up whilst sat alone in your room, without a visible audience, feels… almost embarrassing? This isn’t to say that it can’t happen – we have the Handforth Parish Council as a prime example of intense Zoom politics – but online debates somehow feel less heated.

I believe that politics should, and in a perfect world would, be a little dull – a conversation for people with nothing better to talk about. I acknowledge that being able to remain dispassionate about politics is a privilege, and one which marginalised groups often do not have, but when politics works smoothly, benefitting us all in equal measure, it should just be background noise – providing us with education, health, and social services.

I will always support seeing high levels of public engagement with politics, and strongly encourage everyone to stay informed, talk to your representatives, and protest when needed; but we should remember that the basic function of our parliament is to work together to run a country well. It was refreshing to see a more co-operative political debate than we have become used to, and to hear more practical ideas for how to improve Scotland. The stakes felt low, despite Neven’s poster in the background asking us to “vote like our future depends on it”.

The collaboration and acknowledgement of the good intentions of others displayed at this hustings is exactly what we need; I look forward to seeing the work of the next Scottish Parliament.

You can listen to the hustings on The Backbench podcast, part of Edinburgh Political Union, by clicking here.