Salmond withers in Scottish TV debate as Darling buds
SNP leader missed crucial opportunity in television debate on independence
All smiles: ‘No’ campaign leader Alistair Darling on the campaign trail yesterday following the postive reaction to his performance in Tuesday night’s TV debate. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA
In the eyes of his most partisan supporters, Scottish first minister Alex Salmond held back in Tuesday’s night televised debate on Scottish independence with Alistair Darling of the Labour Party, ready to unleash all in the second debate in three weeks’ time.
However, in the eyes of most others who watched the much- anticipated clash between the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader and Darling, Salmond lost a major opportunity, perhaps the biggest of his career.
Television debates between politicians are nearly always overhyped and overanalysed, seldom having the impact predicted unless one of those involved suffers a politically mortal wound.
Within minutes, both sides – Yes, Scotland and Better Together, which represents the pro-union side – put out declarations that their man “had won it”, as inevitably happens.
However, the immediate reaction in the debate venue, Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Music, said more: Labour’s spokesmen gleefully hopped their way to talk to journalists, while the SNP people were subdued.
For months, Scots – mostly those minded to vote Yes, but not only those – have railed about London’s declaration that an independent Scotland would not be part of a sterling currency union. The warning was first given by Conservative chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, but since then Labour and the Liberal Democrats have signed up to that position too.
Even if Scots hate the message they have heard it, and it worries many of them. Usually dull on television, Darling went on the offensive on Tuesday, demanding Salmond’s Plan B. Salmond does not have one, or, at least, not one he can declare in advance of winning on September 18th, when Scots go to the polls after a two-year debate.
The Yes campaign has struggled to win over majorities in two key categories – women and the elderly – partly caused by a dislike of Salmond that significant numbers of both have.
Clearly, Salmond did not lose his television skills overnight. He heeded advice to be less combative and less confrontational. In the beginning he played against type. Mostly it did not work.
Darling, meanwhile, had taken the opposite instruction: to go on the front foot, to attack and harry Salmond at every opportunity. It mostly worked.
And he had the best quotes of the evening, especially: “Any eight-year-old can tell you the flag of a country, the capital of a country and its currency. I presume the flag is the saltire. I assume our capital will still be Edinburgh. But you can’t tell us what currency we will have. What is an eight-year-old going to make of that?”
Even when Darling faltered, especially about the rather vague answers he gave on what extra powers Scotland would get if it voted No, Salmond failed to capitalise to the extent he should have.
However, he scored when he pressed Darling repeatedly to say whether he believed – as British prime minister David Cameron has already said – that Scotland could be independent and successful.
Instead of giving a simple, direct reply, Darling ducked and weaved, leading to audible groans from even the less partisan in the carefully weighted 350-strong audience.
Similarly, Salmond was stronger on the need for social justice in Scotland though, yet again, the source of the money necessary to do something about it cannot all be about savings from scrapping the Trident nuclear missile system.
Ignoring the poor reviews, Yes, Scotland insisted its immediate post-debate research, backed up by a Guardian poll, showed Salmond had influenced opinion among the undecideds.
Besides scoring on currency, the former Labour chancellor of the exchequer wounded Salmond when discussing pensions. Scotland’s demographic profile is older than that of the rest of the United Kingdom, he said, responding to one of a series of questions on the issue from the audience.
The debate was watched by 1.2 million people in Scotland, while 500,000 more watched it online.
Each and every tremor on social media, newspapers and radio stations will be gauged in coming days by both sides to investigate what people really felt about the debate.
However, today’s story, if everything had gone as it had been so often predicted should have been: “No campaign on the defensive, following Salmond’s starring role.” It is not. Darling was in Glenrothes, in Fife, yesterday, visiting Fife Fabrications, a maker of precision sheet-metalwork. There, he smiled in the face of quiet congratulations.
Extraordinarily, the debate was not broadcast throughout the UK, even though Scotland’s decision will have reverberations for all, not just those living in Scotland.
Despite initial suspicions that it was yet another display of metropolitan elitism by London, it emerged that the BBC and Sky had offered to broadcast it, but STV had refused to share its output.