Scrappy, repetitive, unilluminating, uninspiring and dull. These were some of the terms which occurred to me as I watched last night’s battle between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling. Perhaps these faults were bound to occur, for each man was so anxious to destroy the other’s case that little time or inclination was left for the development of wider and more generous arguments.

Darling’s usual demeanour is that of an unflappable bank manager. On this occasion he became quite agitated by Salmond’s refusal to give straight answers on the currency question. He found Salmond so disreputable that a calm reaction became impossible. So instead we heard Darling accuse his opponent of “playing games” on the currency issue, and of subjecting voters to “a scare campaign” about the NHS which was “simply untrue” and was indeed “a complete fabrication”.

Salmond seldom manages to hide the high opinion he has of his own intelligence. How carefully he had prepared the clever questions with which he hoped to trip Darling up. Darling remained untripped, but only because he took the precaution of refusing to play Salmond’s game, and instead gave platitudinous answers. Salmond’s demand that Darling name three “job-creating” powers which should be devolved to Holyrood was especially unfair: governments can destroy jobs, but can generally do no more than create the conditions for extra jobs to occur.

Although I am a fan of adversarial politics, I cannot pretend I would have watched the whole of this programme if I had not already undertaken to write something about it once it was over. It left me wishing to hear the case Salmond would make to a hall filled with enthusiastic Nationalists, and Darling to a hall filled with enthusiastic Unionists. Each side must have more inspiring things to say than were said in Kelvingrove.

The same objection applied, in my view, to the televised debates held during the general election in 2010. The general effect was of a wearisome distraction which did not help one to appreciate the case for voting for any of the contestants. I would not be disappointed if there were no such debates during the next general election, and the three parties instead returned to the format of daily early morning press conferences at which particular lines of questioning can be pursued.

The conventional wisdom immediately after last night’s debate was that Salmond had “won” it, but that very few people would change their minds as a result. I would guess this is correct: for however nimble Salmond is, he seldom manages to be reassuring. But we shall know soon enough.


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