Tuesday, 26 August 2014

It's a knockout!

I approached last night's debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling with some trepidation. While I thought the previous debate, on STV at the beginning of the month, was nothing like as bad for the First Minister as the media were desperate to claim, I won't deny that it was a low key and somewhat lacklustre performance for a man renowned for his barnstorming style. I also strongly disliked the adversarial format STV adopted which, in conjunction with the frequent ad breaks, rendered the debate disjointed and at times infuriatingly shouty as both men talked over each other in an attempt to make their points. Mindful that largely the same format would be used for the second of the two debates, and of the BBC's less than stellar (to put it mildly) coverage of the referendum to date, I very nearly didn't watch it live.

But at the last minute I changed my mind, and boy, was I glad I did. Taking place in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery, the lavish surroundings immediately gave the proceedings a classier feel than the generic studio set STV used at the Conservatoire with its garish primary colours and Jeremy Kyle-style stage and audience gallery. Right from the bat, Salmond seemed to be on form, clearly articulating his vision for an independent Scotland while all Darling could do was angrily jab his finger at "him" and once again fall back on the question of currency. It was the main line of attack he adopted in the previous debate and the subject on which the First Minister came most unstuck last time round. Clearly thinking he was on to a winner, Darling chose to retread the same ground again and again -- something which the audience had audibly grown tired of by the third time he brought it up, as evinced by the chorus of groans that rang out in the gallery.

Faced with clear, concise rebuttals from Salmond and a "Well, what would you do, then?" line of questioning from moderator Glenn Campbell, Darling came unstuck in dramatic fashion. "Of course we could use the pound!" he spluttered in exasperation, and with that the last remaining Project Fear scare story came crashing down. From then on, it was downhill all the way for the former Chancellor, with Salmond seeming to grow in stature by the minute and the audience turning against his opponent in a manner that seemed to suggest a genuine sea change of opinion, at least among those present. Indeed, the biggest body blows for Darling actually came from the impressively clued-up audience, in particular one woman who called him out on his rank hypocrisy regarding his own association with private healthcare providers and told him she hoped he could "feel Aneurin Bevan sitting on [his] shoulder":

As with the previous debate, the most frustrating section by far was the part where the two men cross-examined each other, owing mainly to Campbell's virtually non-existent moderation and Darling's insistence on asking Salmond a question, only to interrupt him three seconds into his answer. To a certain extent, Salmond gave as good as he got, leading to an at times incomprehensible babble of noise, but as his deputy Nicola Sturgeon learned when up against Johann Lamont, when your opponent is shouting you down and talking over you, you really have no option but to raise your own voice to make yourself heard. It wasn't a particularly edifying spectacle in either case, but as with the infamous Sturgeon/Lamont "stairheid rammy", there's little doubt in my mind as to who was at fault.

The cross-examination wasn't a complete dead loss, however. In the STV debate, Darling's biggest Achilles' heel was his inability to name any new powers that would be devolved to Scotland following a No vote, and I genuinely thought he would have come in better prepared this time round. Imagine my surprise, then, as, when asked by Salmond to name three new job-creating powers that would be devolved post-No, Darling again blinked and spluttered before coming out with some feeble line about the UK already providing a wealth of jobs and opportunities. Left defending savage Tory cuts and the hounding of the poor and disabled, he could only feebly insist "Look, I'm a Labour politician" -- a distinction which, most will agree, has long since ceased to be anything more than purely academic.

Since the very beginning, the Yes campaign have been at pains to point out that this referendum is not a vote on Alex Salmond, or Alastair Darling, or for that matter anyone else, but rather about whether the people of Scotland have a right to determine their own destiny, and Salmond made that point again last night. That said, I wouldn't want to underplay the potential for such a strong performance from Salmond to galvanise the broader Yes campaign. Even if last night's debate didn't directly change a single mind, it still provides the "ground soldiers" who are manning stalls, knocking doors and signing up unregistered voters every day with a renewed sense of optimism and purpose as we head into the crucial final three weeks of campaigning.

It's often said that you're only as good as your last performance. As such, if Salmond genuinely did (as I suspect) choose to keep his powder dry and concentrate all his energy on the second of the two debates, then it was certainly the right one to focus on. And with the first postal votes landing on people's doormats (mine included) within the next 36 hours, Salmond the bruiser came to the fore not a moment too soon.

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