Why Alex Salmond will need to rethink his approach before any future TV debates
Much has already been said, written and tweeted about the first Scottish independence television debate. Such is the pace of modern communications and such is the pace in which politics is practiced these days.
The 'presidential-style' debate has now become a feature of political campaigns in the UK. A chance to win over the undecided voter with a strong televised performance; an opportunity to talk directly to the audience and to shine a light on the weaknesses of your opponent. For Alex Salmond an early loss in this power play was failing to get the prime minister to debate directly with him – national leader to national leader as he would see it.
In the end the stage was set with the two protagonists in the campaign. Facing Alex Salmond was Alistair Darling, the face of the 'no' campaign. The SNP entered the fray in confident mood. Alex Salmond is a confident media performer, well capable of grabbing a headline with well-chosen phrases and challenges. His opponent is known as dull and quiet, a reputation he has carried since his time in government.
Surprisingly, to some in England, the only way to watch the debate was via the STV website – it was not broadcast live on TV south of the border. So, we settled down in front of our laptop and watched the drama unfold. This two-hour debate, to use a well-worn football analogy, was a game of two halves. The first hour was perhaps the strongest in terms of a healthy debate; towards the end it was scrappy and in parts too focused on personal insults.
However, the result was not what perhaps many north of the border had expected. The length of the debate and the detail and persistence of the questions – from the studio audience as well as the participants – highlighted an issue which the no campaign and Westminster watchers have long understood but the yes campaign has yet to resolve.
Alex Salmond is brilliant at stating a case with passion, vigour and conviction. He knows how to deliver a good sound bite and at times he fell back on well-worn lines. More pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs! The problem has always been demonstrating that the quality of the thinking and planning to effectively run an independent Scotland does not stand up to scrutiny. Enter Alistair Darling, who was in confident form and equally passionate – at times, surprisingly aggressive – who time after time challenged the detail in the SNP plan.
Here was the fatal flaw for Mr Salmond and one which people returned to time and again – what is Plan B if Scotland cannot keep the pound? It is a flaw in the SNP argument that Westminster has exploited over recent months and opinion polls demonstrate there is serious concern amongst voters about this.
Pundits, commentators and Twitter seem to agree that Darling emerged the victor in this bruising first encounter. A snap ICM poll suggested that Darling won by 56-44 per cent and with the yes campaign still trailing in the polls the SNP will need to rethink its approach before the next debate.
But what of Westminster in all this. Well, aside from sowing the seeds of doubt about currency union, membership of the EU and the fiscal probity of an SNP-led independent Scotland, another announcement quietly slipped out yesterday. All three main UK parties agreed to grant Scotland more tax raising powers after the next election, whoever wins in Westminster. A move clearly designed to appeal to those in favour of more devolution but nervous of all out independence.
For Alex Salmond the next six weeks are critical. He and the SNP have spent the last three decades waiting for this moment. So far it has been a campaign built on passion and patriotism. Winning hearts is one thing, they now need to win minds too.
Liam Herbert is a director in the PR and parliamentary affairs agency JBP