September 18th 2014 | Scotland

Switching off: Thoughts from the debate

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 7 August 2014
Debate image

The dust has settled and there seems to be widespread agreement that Alex Salmond took a beating in his televised debate with Alistair Darling.

The internet and the press are awash with analysis and opinion and there is no point raking back over the cooling ashes of a debate that burst into flame over currency questions and food banks queues.

Darling won but it is unlikely that it will have any discernable impact on polling. Possibly some wavering No voters will feel more assured reverting to a position that was always felt like their instinctual one.

We were never likely to learn much new from these two going head to head. It was always going to be rehash of old problems.

In fact the most obvious point to emerge is that in writing off Darling, commentators had done the former Chancellor an injustice. Much of this will stem from Better Together spinners talking their own man down before-hand to manage expectation.

It also became obvious that the decision to keep Salmond behind the scenes in the campaign up to now was the right one.

The Yes campaign has drawn on a huge grassroots campaign to generate momentum – even if it still trails in every poll.

But watching Salmond it was hard not to think that the man seems to stand in contrast to almost every successful part of this grassroots movement.

The SNP will deny it, but the First Minister is the closest thing that the Scottish Parliament has to a Westminster-style professional politician.

And meeting someone who plays the same game, Salmond really struggled.

Last night the Scottish public saw two examples of the same model – the polished, professional politician. Darling just did it a bit better.

But it may not have just been Alex Salmond’s ego that got hurt last night.

The debate, full of jibes and heckles, was noticeably removed from what has grown to become a vibrant, constructive, healthy national dialogue.

The tone did the referendum debate no favours at all. They hurt each other’s case and in the process they may have damaged voter engagement.

The campaign has been refreshing because it has got the population talking. There is a good chance that those people, previously disillusioned with politics, who have been coaxed back in by the hope generated by the promise of change, will have lost interest – and faith – in the first 30 minutes.

It will not just have been TVs which will have been switched off.

This is not all Salmond or Darling’s fault – the head-to-head TV debate format did not help.

Speaking at a festival event this week – All back to Bowie’s – Nicola Sturgeon described her debate with Lamont as her least favourite part of the campaign so far.

She said: “Inevitably these debates are adversarial – that is how they are set up to be. Probably my least favourite part of the campaign to date was that debate I did with Johann Lamont. If we could turn the clock back I think both of us would try and do that differently. Whether we would succeed or not I don’t know because the way the debate is set up is designed to make it like that.

“I much prefer doing normal meetings because you can get engaged in a more nuanced debate, you can get into arguments in a way that is more about addressing genuine concerns, rather than in the heat of a TV studio, where everything is black and white.”

“I am not having a go at STV here, they have been fantastic in the way that they have gone about leading these debates. But there was a decision taken not to moderate it and the difficulty you get into is that with nobody moderating it – nobody refereeing – then if you stop talking then you don’t know the other person will too. So you are both scared to give ground, in case the other person just steam rollers over you. It is tempting to blame the media but we all have a responsibility for how the debate has progressed.”

The debate was depressing. It was combative. They snarled. It had all the bad bits that the independence campaign has managed to avoid.

This is not politics as normal and politicians cannot act as though it is.

The debate gave ammunition to those – particularly in the media – who have wanted to describe the national conversation as bitter and socially divisive one all along, as if it is unhealthy to talk about this stuff.

In the space of two hours Salmond and Darling destroyed the feeling – however naïve – that whatever the outcome of the referendum Scotland would be a better place.   

Darling won on points and Salmond disappointed. But the real loser could be voter engagement.

Liam Kirkaldy