LAST night’s BBC debate on Scottish independence saw the return of the combative and canny First Minister, the one with an occasional penchant for lyricism who was strangely absent from the STV joust of a few weeks ago. Back then, a natural slugger was asked to rein in his hooks and replace jabs with ill conceived jibes. The towel, however, was left at home for the sequel.
Salmond pulled off the difficult sleight of hand in political debating of giving expansive answers without them necessarily being detailed. He had greater presence and purpose and demonstrated his guile by inviting Alistair Darling to put forward positive rebuttals instead of the negativity that has defined Better Together’s campaign. In areas problematic to the Yes camp, the SNP leader adopted his party’s classic tactic of depicting Scotland as David to Westminster’s Goliath. On the currency issue, his focus on a mandate to negotiate a union was opportune and savvy.
Not that Darling let it be. In repeatedly attempting to claw the focus of the debate back to the pound, he mistook desperation for doggedness and by attempting to exploit a weakness, the weariness of his repetition suggested currency and currency alone was the sole folly of the Yes campaign. It was a form of myopia which allowed Salmond to romp to victory on home advantage issues such the NHS and welfare reform. Darling seemed struck down by an ideological paralysis, unable to differentiate Labour from the Tories for fear of upsetting Better Together’s fragile alliance. This, I suspect, was a key battle won in the war for the undecideds – what kind of party is modern Scottish Labour, and does it have the will and means to combat the Tory-led cuts agenda?
Whether last night will have an impact beyond setting the tone of the press coverage in the week ahead is unclear. A snap poll taken immediately after the debate showed 71% of people thought Salmond had won, but asked how they would vote, the same poll revealed the numbers remained unchanged, with 49% Yes compared to 51% No. I’d caution against overestimating the influence of these debates when it comes to the ballot box, other than saying they reinforce existing prejudices. It seems unthinkable now, but we should remember the unlikely wave of euphoria surrounding Nick Clegg after his performances in the TV debates leading up to the last general election. Ultimately, it didn’t translate to the polling booths and although there’s still a wave surrounding Clegg, it consists of something considerably less edifying that euphoria.
There’s also the important distinction to be made between an election and a referendum – personality politics hold less sway. That’s especially true now that the gladiatorial prime time debates are over. Now, barring a catastrophic blunder – we journalists live in hope – the agenda will be refined and pressed home by the grassroots activists. There will be no new answers and no new facts – some sceptics might say we never had any old ones – so those expecting matters to get any more definitively vague should be let down gently. Look on the bright side, at least we won’t have to witness the kind of rammy that tainted last night’s debate for a good quarter hour, but if in the days and weeks to come, the nostalgia pangs become too great to ignore, I suggest visiting a Sachiehall Street chippie at chucking out time. The oratory, I’m told, is just as robust, though the pickled eggs aren’t quite as sour.