There are lessons to be learned from Alex Salmond’s triumph over Alastair Darling in Monday night’s debate and the first is that it’s already looking like a Pyrrhic victory.
Nationalists were of course cock-a-hoop, and no wonder. If Darling had eked out even a score draw then their campaign would have been utterly deflated and they would have limped along in the final few weeks, left only to appeal to their core vote. Instead Darling was giving a good going over in what was an utterly unedifying spectacle that made me embarrassed to be from a country famed for its ability to debate. It was a stair-heid rammy that only required a Glasgow kiss to finish it off.
Anyone who knows me and my political style will understand that I like the cut and thrust of argument. Like my wines, I like it robust – but I also expect it to be well-mannered so that we can hear the points, and respectful of the audience who want reasoned answers. The BBC debate was a shambles and the corporation has to take much of the responsibility for that.
Time and again, Alex Salmond was allowed to talk over Alastair Darling and use this as a technique to shut him down. A strong moderator would have deducted time from Salmond and told him to button it, but the moderator, Glenn Campbell, rarely imposed himself, leaving me to tweet in desperation that he must have been a hologram. Glenn is a very able interrogator on a studio sofa but the big event appeared to swallow him up.
The obvious candidate for the job was Andrew Neil, who still occasionally guest chairs debates at Glasgow Union. Neil would have carried the authority over such senior politicians and been both willing and able to ask them the tough questions. Campbell is (and was) simply too nice.
The set was also wrong, with the moderator to the side, thus allowing the two combatants to fingerpoint and practically collar each other. They should have been seated together, then going to a single lectern when they could be grilled or give their presentations. Also, the balance of the audience appeared firmly nationalist. Why broadcasters think they need a ”balance” is beyond me because they rarely achieve it – there is always one group of supporters that manages to make more noise and encourage the boxing ring mentality. Instead they should only allow undecided voters – it is not that difficult to find them – and even if some go undercover they are then likely to be in a minority.
People watch these TV debates to find out information or hear the logic of a case – but having verbal assaults on the speakers from the audience floor by performing seals who applaud themselves is hardly enlightening – and none of it is good television. I’d rather watch a tenth showing of a Grand Designs episode or suffer some excruciating reality show like TOWIE.
But this is all flim flam in regard to the debate and its outcome – although I would hope broadcasters do begin to realise that people are tiring of these Punch and Judy shows.
The important point is that while Salmond won the debate on his own terms – by monstering Alastair Darling so much that he struggled to be cogent – I am also convinced he will have achieved nothing except bolster his supporters’ morale. While that will be helpful to the Yes campaign the point is that his blend of pugilism, smarm and too-clever-by-half one liners does not win over the uncommitted. He remains a highly divisive figure when they need a healer.
All he did was halt the lawyerly dissection of his weaknesses that Darling had managed to deliver in the previous debate, but the weaknesses remain for all to see. Salmond’s bluff and bluster was disrespectful to the audience and the nation – for it treated the public’s need for real bread and butter answers with contempt – and this is what the Better Together campaign should be accusing him of.
As for Darling, I wrote in an earlier column how he had to move on to new territory to keep Salmond guessing and expose him for saying whatever suits him – using the many hostages to fortune that he has built up over the years. The audience needed to be reminded that the First Minister had previously said the Pound Sterling was a “millstone” around Scots necks (but now wants to use it) and how he had legal advice backing automatic EU membership (when he did not).
More importantly, Darling had to give a positive case not just for the union going forward but for the best country in the world right now. That he could could only allude to the former was because as a Labour politician he could not find it within himself to talk up the UK under this Coalition Government.
When asked by Salmond, Darling could not bring himself to criticise a ridiculous and loaded statement about privatisation of the NHS by Unison nor could he talk up the fact that under the Coalition the NHS was not subject to the austerity measures being claimed but was in fact seeing spending increases year on year. Salmond had spotted a weakness – in that Darling would have difficulty being positive about a Conservative-led United Kingdom. Darling should have prepared for this but was left fumbling.
The result has been an ICM poll showing 71 per cent believe that Salmond won – but another ICM poll also showed no change in the numbers backing Yes, No or feeling undecided. The betting odds initially moved towards the Yes campaign but within thirteen hours had settled back to where they were before the debate. All in all, the TV debate has had little effect.
What is required now is for Better Together to hold its nerve, reduce the arguments to those issues that really concern people – such as the benefits of being British and the solidarity we gain from it, the strength of sharing economic risks and opportunities, the security in pensions, welfare and defence – and then concentrate on getting the vote out.
The No campaign should focus on messages, not personalities; it should be positive about the UK’s future and keep asking for the answers Alex Salmond does not have – or dare not reveal.