To use a Commonwealth Games analogy, last night’s debate was a race between two very different athletes. Salmond is the archetypal sprinter – a flashy showman capable of dazzling performances. Darling, on the other hand, is a distance runner – doggedly placing one foot in front of the other, possessed of great technique and stamina.
Place one in the other’s type of race, therefore, and they would fail miserably, just as Mo Farah couldn’t beat Usain Bolt in the 100 metres, and Bolt would be left for dust in the half marathon. In a battle of wit, magnetism and personality, Salmond would stomp all over his opponent – but he would fall flat on his face in a struggle over detail and practicality.
For most of the population of the UK, though, the first hurdle last night was getting to watch the event at all. STV had, with no good reason, refused to syndicate broadcast rights to the BBC in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their own web stream failed miserably, and thus the majority of those whose union was being debate were left scrabbling around the internet for an obscure online feed.
Having found one, I settled down for a rarity – a race in which you know the athletes but not the distance.
Salmond provided his standard edition – cheeky, swift to take offence on Scotland’s behalf and regularly reciting standard attack lines against the Better Together campaign (how many shots were downed by players of Debate Bingo for the phrase “Project Fear” I can only imagine). The First Minister can sometimes produce glittering feats of performance - but for some reason he didn’t quite rise above his normal self. It was as though he felt he was running in a heat, not the final.
Darling, on the other hand, was a genuine surprise. Who, watching his rather drab performances as Chancellor, could have guessed he had such fire in his belly? As an Englishman, relatively unconcerned about the possible departure of our subsidised, over-represented cousins, I’d like to think I was able to watch fairly dispassionately. But to see the No campaign’s man prick Salmond with humour, charge him with irresponsibility and put his rhetoric under the microscope was pleasantly surprising.
As the debate ran on, it became clear that while Salmond had won the opening few minutes, the initial dash had been replaced by a long haul. The First Minister’s nerve-touching about Tory cuts and Scotland being ruled by a government it hadn’t voted for certainly secured him an initial lead, but then he began to run out of puff – and Darling started to eat up the ground between them.
Apparently having taken Brian Monteith’s advice, the former Chancellor did not try to fight Salmond on his chosen terms. He kept his temper, resisted the temptation to lay into him directly and instead chose to tease. His response to Salmond’s puffed-up resentment of a Tory government Scots didn’t vote for was to point out that “I never voted for you, but I’m stuck with you”. It tapped into a key weakness of the Yes campaign – there are plenty of proud Scots who love their country but don’t necessarily love their nation’s leader.
If that sting marked the start of the fightback, then it was on the currency question that the real blood started to fly. Given the opportunity to question Salmond directly, Darling stuck solidly on the question of currency union – namely, given that all three main parties had said the rest of the UK wouldn’t share the pound with an independent Scotland, what was Salmond’s plan B?
Well, we’ll have the pound because “it’s our pound, too”, came the reply.
With respect, came the calm voice, that wasn’t the question – if they won’t share it, what then? (One foot in front of the other, step step step step.)
It would be best for Scotland and rUK to have the pound.
Please answer me, what’s your plan B? Do you have one? (Still, the steady pace, elbows pumping.)
Even you’ve said it would be good for us to have the pound.
We’ve got the pound now, that’s why I’m voting No. (Left foot) Do you want the Euro? (Right foot) Do you want a new Scottish currency? (Left foot) Do you want to be like Panama, using a dollar they don’t control? (Right foot)
Then, the killer – I’m asking you to do something difficult: contemplate for a moment that you might be wrong.
Ouch – a politely put jab at Salmond’s primary weakness, his ego. Showing his lack of answers was painful enough – combining it with his personal failings must have stung.
The pressure began to show – the First Minister can dodge a question, but no-one can dodge one forever. The audience began to bristle and grumble, growing louder at each attempt to escape rather than answer. The hubris that razzle-dazzle would be enough was being exposed, the sprinter was blowing hard and Darling had overtaken him.
This is when the Yes campaigner made a mistake – he didn’t stumble, he just ran off in the wrong direction. Given his chance to question Darling in return, he could have done any number of things – offered a positive vision of an independent Scotland, for example, in a question framed to force the response to sound negative; or built on his successful reminder of Darling’s involvement in the financial crisis.
Instead, he chose to take out the SNP’s frustrations about Better Together. Why did someone reportedly say Scotland wouldn’t be able to defend itself against alien invasion? Why did someone say we’d have to drive on the other side of the road? Why won’t you change this or that on your website?
Given the seriousness of the currency question only minutes before, it felt – indeed, it was – irrelevant stuff. While the rest of the debate saw both men land some blows, Salmond never really recovered from the cross-examination round. Having gone into the night as the overwhelming favourite, he had failed even to secure a draw. For the great showman of Scottish politics, it was an embarrassing night – and one he won’t be keen to repeat.