The debate televised on the BBC on 25th August was the second between Labour MP Alistair Darling and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, but for many viewers outside of Scotland it was the first chance to observe the sparring match.
From the start the set-up was adversarial, and potentially confusing to those not closely following politics. Why was Alistair Darling deemed Alex Salmond’s equivalent? It’s because he is the chair of the Better Together campaign, although I had to fact-check that one to be sure of it.
The format was simple: ninety minutes in which Darling would put forward the case to vote No to independence; and Salmond the case to vote Yes. There would be an opening statement, five main sections during which audience participation would be permitted, and a closing statement, with Glenn Campbell acting as presenter, moderator, audience-member selector and time-keeper.
Alex Salmond gave an impassioned opening statement which presented the 18th September 2014 referendum as the chance Scotland has been waiting for, and as a natural progression from the 1979 and 1997 referenda. His reference to the 1979 referendum was slightly misleading: he said “We didn’t get the Parliament we voted for”. Although 51% voted in favour of what would have been a Scottish assembly, turnout was 32% and it had required a 40% turnout plus a majority Yes vote to become law. To me, the low turnout and the slim majority Yes amongst the voters shows that the hunger for increased self-governance wasn’t there in 1979, but Salmond wasn’t going to let that spoil his rhetoric.
Alistair Darling used his opening statement to discredit Salmond, saying the public needed answers “here and now” on currency and oil revenues. He said in the absence of clear answers, “we’ll have to say ‘no, thanks'”; a reference to the campaign slogan. Darling made two mistakes in his opening statement: firstly, he didn’t actually say the words “better together” or set out any positive reasons for voting against independence; secondly, he referred to Salmond as “he” and “him” rather than “Alex”, “Mr Salmond”, “the First Minister” or “the leader of the SNP”. (Goodness knows there are enough names to choose from; choosing not to name him came across as rude.)
Section 1: the economy
[NB: Within this section, I’m reporting thematically rather than chronologically, because we’ll all lose the will if I accurately follow the topic-skipping.]
Alistair Darling set out his stall by saying there is greater economic security through Scotland remaining part of the UK. He said that a stable economy requires certainty over currency, and challenged Salmond to reveal what currency an independent Scotland would use.
Alex Salmond had clearly prepared for this question (whereas he had apparently been wrong-footed over the issue in the previous debate) and said that as leader of an independent Scotland, he would “seek a mandate” to share GBP in a currency union, adding “nobody can stop us” from using pounds sterling.
Darling pointed out that in a currency union, both sides have to agree to it. In the event that Britain (NI, Wales and England) refuse a currency union with an independent Scotland, what is Plan B? Salmond hedged his wording, but more or less said they would use pounds sterling anyway (in the manner that, for example, Panama uses US$). Darling called this a “nonsense option”, because it would mean operating without a central bank and having to run at a continuous surplus. Salmond, however, seemed confident no Plan B would be needed, because if the Bank of England insisted on holding on to all of its assets, it would also take on all of the responsibility for Scotland’s debt. Darling tried to get Salmond to consider what it would mean if the Westminster government called his bluff: “If your first message in the world is here we are, here is Scotland, and by the way we’ve just defaulted on our debt, what do you think that would do to people who are lending us money in the future? Nobody would lend us any money in the future.”
Although Darling was raising very valid concerns, the most memorable thing he said in this section was that “of course” Scotland could keep the pound. He was making the wider point that, legally, any country has the right to use any currency, but it doesn’t bring with it any stability unless it (in this case) comes with the UK’s assets, credit rating etc. But he made the point poorly, allowing Salmond to seize on the words as an admission, and the audience sensed Yes vote triumph.
Alistair Darling said that information published by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) shows we have been too optimistic about the income from North Sea oil in the past, and it is hugely risky and “too volatile” to count on it when formulating the budget for an independent Scotland. Salmond countered that the oil and gas should be seen as an asset, not a curse, and linked the OBR to the Conservative Party. (The latter might seem bizarre, but one of Salmond’s favourite political tactics is to taint things he doesn’t like by associating them with the Conservatives/Thatcher. To those Scots who lived through the closure of the mines and the impoverished 1980s, it sometimes works and gets a negative connotation to stick. In the context of someone born in 1987 watching a TV debate in England, it came across as pretty random.)
Section 2: Scotland at home
An audience member opened this section by asking a question about the NHS and, in particular, ensuring those with chronic illnesses are looked after. Salmond responded with a brilliant piece of body language: he walked in front of his podium to get closer to the front of the stage, therefore engaging more directly with the audience, before answering the question (remembering, of course, to look back at the questioner and use her name). He said that Scotland needed financial control as well as policy control over the NHS in order to protect it from creeping privatization.
Alistair Darling declared from behind his podium that Scottish NHS funding is stronger and more secure as part of the UK. He pointed out that the Scottish Parliament can already choose how much of its NHS funding it allocates to the public and private sectors, and that the SNP has already sent money to the private sector in order to meet its NHS targets.
Darling lost heavily on the body language front in this section. As well as having no equivalent tactic to get closer to the audience, he started pointing his finger fairly frequently at Salmond/”him”, which again just looked plain rude. Which is a shame, because content-wise he was on to something.
Section 3: cross-examination
Okay, this section we all could have done without. It was supposed to be an opportunity for scrutiny, with each leader having eight minutes to pick out the flaws in the other’s argument.
Alistair Darling went first and said “I want to go back to currency”, at which the audience very audibly groaned. (I did, too, as I’d been hoping he would use the NHS point as a route into looking at Salmond’s/the SNP’s record in the Scottish Parliament.) Cue a re-hash of section 1, but with less discipline as both Salmond and Darling talked over each other and generally behaved like rowdy backbenchers at PMQs. Salmond, for his part, accused Darling of being in bed with the Tories and de facto implementing welfare cuts.
There was absolutely no scrutiny, so I’m going to pretend that the sixteen minutes of my life spent watching the “cross-examination” never happened, and move on.
Section 4: Scotland’s place in the world
Apparently “Scotland’s place in the world” means “let’s talk about Trident”. Salmond, walking in front of his podium again, talked about how the money saved by scrapping Trident would in part be spent on the creation of a smaller Scottish defence force. Darling countered by saying that if Trident goes, the submarine fleet and at least 8,000 jobs would go with it, and that it could take until 2028 (rather than Salmond’s projected 2020) to move Trident.
Section 5: Life after the vote
The two debaters were asked to reflect on the nature of the campaign and on what would happen after 18th September.
Alistair Darling said that he had been campaigning for six months with no animosity at the start, but that it had grown difficult and heated in the last few weeks. Whatever the referendum result, he said both sides would accept it and work together afterwards.
Alex Salmond said that he disagreed with Alistair’s assessment of the campaign, which he felt was the “most energised campaign in Scottish history”, but agreed with him that whether the vote was Yes or No it would be accepted, and both sides would move on and work together for Scottish interests. (Actually, he said “Team Scotland”.)
There was an interesting aside when a young man in the audience asked how interest in politics could be sustained after the vote. Salmond said he’d like to consider forming a Scottish constitution. This surprised me: firstly, because no UK country has ever had a written constitution; and secondly, because I’m in a tiny minority of people who care about that sort of thing, yet Salmond thinks it’s a way of sustaining the zest for politics.
Alex Salmond summed up by saying the referendum was “an opportunity that may not come our way again”. He feels the No campaign has nothing positive to say, whereas Yes means Scottish voters will always be guaranteed to get the government they vote for. “This is our time; our moment. Let’s seize it with both hands.”
Alistair Darling summed up by saying “We will prosper together,” and that in contrast “uncertainty about currency can bring a country to its knees.” He feels Scots can have the best of both worlds by saying “No, thanks” to independence.
Both debaters suffered from using vague generalizations and not enough facts & figures. The few that were put forward were used as weapons rather than to inform the audience, which was disappointing but not surprising.
Alex Salmond clearly won on style. His body language was relaxed and engaging, and he talked on a range of topics. Content-wise he was middling, with clearer answers on currency but some outright nonsensical comments when trying to slur the OBR/Labour Party as Conservative.
Alistair Darling focused far too much on currency, dragging the argument back again even after Salmond had actually addressed the issue in a fairly clear manner. His body language was fairly wooden and content generally more accurate but also more negative. The biggest failing was that, for someone who is chair of a campaign called Better Together, he didn’t put forward any concrete examples of benefits Scots currently enjoy that they should vote to protect.
The bottom line is that Alex Salmond has a weaselly charm about him, and Darling discovered that, in the cruel land of televised debating, even being a weasel is preferable to having no charm at all.
The pollsters’ view
According to the Guardian/ICM poll, Alex Salmond “won” the debate with 71% (in the previous debate, Alistair Darling “won” with 56% to Salmond’s 44%).
This debate was more significant because it was held just before the postal ballots were sent out, and may well affect the postal vote. However, the opinion polls asking the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” still showed the No campaign ahead of the Yes campaign on 28th August.