So the first TV debate has come and gone, but did it really move the debate any further forward? Here are four of the main things that we learned last night.
Darling only has one card to play
While claims that Darling came out of the debate victorious are, clearly, wide of the mark, even Yes supporters must accept that on the question of currency things didn’t go entirely our way. Yes, a currency union with the UK is logical and desirable (to use Alistair Darling’s words) and will happen because it is in the best interests of both Scotland the the remainder of the UK, but refusing to outline an alternative (even though it won’t be required) was never going to satisfy a lot of undecided voters and, in the end, those are the people that really matter at this stage. The good news is that there is another debate to come and, one would assume, the issue of currency will again form the backbone of Darling’s argument – that being the case, much more effort and emphasis should be put into combating the issue which is, for many people, the last remaining hurdle to a Yes vote in September.
There is still no positive vision for Scotland continuing in the UK
Despite being given a number of opportunities to do so, Alistair Darling still failed to provide any sort of positive vision for a post-no Scotland. The best we got were relatively vague references to helping vulnerable groups, but such claims are extraordinarily hollow given the UK’s atrocious record in this area. There was also mention of the ‘promise’ of more powers after a No vote, but Darling is smart enough to know that unless he can provide specifics (which he can’t) then pushing this point too hard would simply paint an unmissable target on his back – “Alistair, if the unionist parties are genuine in their promise of more powers, why did they remove DevoMax from the ballot?”
Salmond’s debating technique isn’t perfect
At this point I get to put on my English-teacher hat and do what I am paid to do – provide constructive feedback. Overall, Salmond is an extremely skilled speaker and, as expected, he got most of the basics right: he spoke clearly and expressively, he tried to set the agenda wherever possible, he made good use of body language (including stepping out from behind his podium) and he repeated a number of key phrases. As many people have pointed out, however, Salmond did make some mistakes in terms of his delivery, specifically in his approach to answering the currency question (explained above) and at the opening of his window for asking questions of Alistair Darling (I suspect that his use of the ‘aliens question’ may start to appear in Better Together campaign literature). Fundamentally, setting out to make your opponent look ridiculous is a tried and tested technique in the debating world (and should have been an open goal for Salmond) but, in order to do it effectively, you must remain in complete control of the exchange – this did not happen. Rather than ask Darling individual questions about driving on the right hand side of the road and being attacked by aliens, and thus giving him a chance to refute them as jokes (even though that isn’t actually true), Salmond should have done something like this:
“Alistair, despite your claims to lead a positive campaign for Scotland remaining in the union, the people of Scotland have had to endure all sorts of nonsense over the last few months – we’ve heard that we wouldn’t get into the EU, that there would be border posts between Scotland and England, and countless variations of us being “too wee, too poor and too stupid” to go it alone; we’ve even had members of your campaign demeaning themselves by talking about having to drive on the other side of the road, or being vulnerable to alien attacks. Now, even if those latter arguments were not serious, it still sets the tone for a campaign that has failed to offer a positive vision for this country. Can you tell this audience right now what your positive vision for Scotland is if the people of this country vote no?”
Too many people still see personality as a valid factor in their decision-making
Personality politics is a plague on democracy in any situation, but it is an especially damaging phenomenon in the context of a single issue referendum. Disliking Alex Salmond is no more valid a reason to vote No than liking him is to vote Yes, but the response to the debate (on both social and mainstream media) shows that perceptions of his personality remain an issue. It goes without say that those who cling to this must spurious of ‘issues’ belong in the intellectual shallow end of the debate, but it is worth keeping in mind that the No camp have worked hard to push the idea that a vote for Yes is a vote for Alex Salmond, willfully ignoring the fact that the Yes campaign is the most diverse grassroots political movement in Scottish history.
Overall, then, there is plenty of room for improvement from both speakers, but you can’t help but feel that Alistair Darling was going at full throttle last night, whereas I suspect Alex Salmond has another gear or two available – the question is, does he have enough fuel in the tank to make use of them?