Beyond the hype of the TV debate is the real Yes campaign


  By Lesley Riddoch

STV’s “Scotland Decides” TV debate was a big disappointment for Yes supporters – there’s no denying it.  Alex Salmond was off form and curiously slow on his feet.  By contrast the normally soporific Alistair Darling acted like a man possessed. Each man performed against type – and against hype.

SNP supporters expected their leader to simply switch on the vice-like control of proceedings he demonstrates every week in Holyrood – even though this was a debate between equals not a First Minister’s showcase.

By Lesley Riddoch

STV’s “Scotland Decides” TV debate was a big disappointment for Yes supporters – there’s no denying it.  Alex Salmond was off form and curiously slow on his feet.  By contrast the normally soporific Alistair Darling acted like a man possessed. Each man performed against type – and against hype.

SNP supporters expected their leader to simply switch on the vice-like control of proceedings he demonstrates every week in Holyrood – even though this was a debate between equals not a First Minister’s showcase.

The wider Yes movement assumed this would finally be the moment for Salmond to do the “vision thing” –shifting the debate to higher ground, neutralising scaremongering over currency, pensions, Europe, highlighting the elitist, insular and unequal nature of life in the UK and laying out his own personal reasons for supporting independence since the days of his youth.  But just like the disappointing official Yes campaign launch last year, lift-off didn’t happen and higher ground wasn’t reached.

Blow by blow accounts of the two hour debate are aplenty.  But three things stood out for me.

Firstly, Alex Salmond unaccountably made the mistake of fighting on his enemy’s preferred turf – not his own.  Clearly the ex-Chancellor was always going to focus on the financial uncertainty of independence.  Salmond needed to have a battalion of answers to the “Plan B” question – not just one.

I expected a robust demonstration of how all “non-negotiable” stances in politics eventually become negotiable, a cheeky question about George Osborne’s Plan B and perhaps an announcement that Scotland could set up its own currency — if the UK Government is determined to damage everyone’s fortunes by refusing a shared currency.  None of this “fleshing out” of the currency argument happened.  Perhaps it seemed that if Better Together could roll out their hardy, old perennial arguments, Alex Salmond could roll out the same oft-repeated assertion that a shared currency will simply prevail – over and over again.

Secondly, Salmond failed to home in on some clangers dropped by Darling in response to astute, pointed questions by the debate’s moderator.  When Bernard Ponsonby asked the Better Together boss which two powers would definitely come to Scotland in the event of a No vote, Darling’s stuttering response “Road tax and some tax-raising powers” was greeted with laughter and howls of derision.  Yet Salmond chose to respond to Darling’s personal dig — “I didn’t vote for you but I’m stuck with you” – instead of tackling his far more serious policy error.

Astonishingly the Better Together boss failed to mention the devolution of welfare powers – the new addition to Devo More announced by the three unionist parties earlier that same day.  Unbelievable – and a live demonstration of the fleeting, unconvincing and last-minute nature of Unionist pledges.  What fun could have been had trying to winkle from the evidently un-briefed Darling precisely WHICH welfare powers might be heading north, precisely WHEN and precisely HOW welfare powers could easily be detached piecemeal from the integrated Universal Credit system – unless it’s about to implode under the weight of sustained criticism from claimants, Commons Committees and charities alike.

But this promising seam of argument was left completely un-mined.  Salmond needed to set a totally different agenda when he had the opportunity to respond and to cross question.  He didn’t.

Thirdly, by contrast, there was too much repetition of the good points that did reach their mark.  Salmond looked to have totally thrown Darling when he quoted his own previous opinion – that a shared currency would be “logical and desirable”.  But instead of using that momentary advantage to neutralise the financial argument, demonstrate how politicians wax hot and cold over propositions and move on, Salmond repeated the phrase with increasing bombast, fanning the flames of Darling’s currency preoccupation instead of developing his own arguments.

Similarly Salmond’s trademark reliance on newspaper cuttings quickly sounded dated, pernickety and over-detailed.  Past opinions and minor technicalities quickly became the fulcrum of this live debate – quite the wrong terrain for an independence cause that relies on a different vision of the future.

Above all there was none of the vision the audience had expected nor any mention of the way the independence campaign has been transformed from a top-down, SNP party-led campaign into a genuinely grassroots, activist-led movement.

Now I’ll grant you, in a moment of incredible pressure, simple things can disappear from the front of the mind.  It was always going to be tempting for a former oil economist to dwell on economics.  And it’s very, very hard to stare into the camera Bill Clinton-like and talk from the heart.  That kind of openness involves vulnerability — it’s what women voters in particular like about public figures who can do it.

But just as the Iron Lady was not for turning, Alex Salmond is not for appearing vulnerable.  I think he’s mistaken the attractive quality of vulnerability for the unattractive quality of weakness. Maybe that can be unravelled before the next BBC debate later this month.

Meantime, Salmond was clearly the victim of over-hyping by the Yes side – and perhaps of some reverse sexism.  After Nicola Sturgeon demolished two Scottish Secretaries on the trot in roughly the same STV format, a subliminal expectation arose –anything Nicola could do, Alex could do better.  Why did anyone think that?  Alex Salmond’s difficulties last night confirmed Nicola’s exceptional TV debating skills and proved they aren’t transferable with status but earned the very hard way.

Those are the downsides.  And yet, just as Salmond’s downbeat demeanour was a surprise during the debate, there was an even greater surprise after it.

Amongst undecided voters in a Guardian-commissioned ICM poll, Alex Salmond was deemed the winner.

Of course the main headline picked out by all the papers was the overall verdict — Alistair Darling won by a margin of 56 to 44.  But the poll found that overall, excluding ‘don’t knows’, support for Yes increased by two per cent over the two-hour debate from 45% before the contest to 47% after.  Amongst voters who’d started out as undecideds, Salmond won by 55-45.

Amongst those who were still undecided at the end of the night, Salmond’s margin of victory was even greater — 74 to 26.  And comparing last night’s poll with the previous ICM poll in July, the biggest rise in support for Yes was among women – up by 9% — meaning greater support for Yes among women (48%) than men (45%) for the first time.

Now, it’s true only 500 people were sampled rather than the usual 1000.  And some of those hefty percentages could represent just a very few people.  Recent polls have seen the “undecided” squeezed to just 7% of the total – probably not enough to swing the result.

It’s also true that the three young first-time voters who watched the entire debate for the BBC’s News Channel along with myself and the Spectator’s Alex Massie proclaimed themselves to be “more undecided” at the end than the start.  In a way though, that’s encouraging.  Sentient young ‘uns still think there’s a convincing pro-Indy argument to be heard – even if they haven’t quite heard it yet. Equally – they don’t buy the scaremongering, relentless problem-finding and negativity of Better Together even though that has the backing of almost every part of the mainstream press and media.

So who will make that wider case?  Or perhaps more correctly who will get the chance to make that case in a country whose media focuses on party leaders, and forces everyone into stylized, aggressive dog-eat-dog debates?

A couple of thoughts occur.

One– whilst anoraks and committed voters know about the scandal of food-banks, Trident and the bedroom tax on Westminster’s watch and needed to have the argument about Westminster elitism developed, it’s entirely possible some undecided Scots heard it for the first time and got it.

Two – there’s no point rushing to disown Alex Salmond on the strength of one performance deemed wobbly by the faithful but quite good by some key undecided voters.  We simply wouldn’t be here without the man.  If he had not taken over at the helm of the SNP and steered them through two exceptional Holyrood election victories, we simply wouldn’t be here today, weeks away from a referendum that’s already forced concessions from unionist parties and can still be won.

Alex Salmond has given Scots the opportunity to achieve profound constitutional, political and social change – but that opportunity would have remained hypothetical if ordinary Scots had not seized it, reshaped it and made it their own.  The growth of an energetic campaign outside the SNP and even the formal Yes campaign may be painted as a form of organisational deviation or weakness by opponents and a media obsessed with silver bullets that guarantee change – even when the world is patently transformed rather differently, by profound change that happens a little bit everywhere, generally below the radar.

And that kind of personal, intimate change is constantly happening.  Will it be enough to inch the Yes vote over the line on September 18th?  Who knows?  But it is still as possible today as yesterday – even with STV’s hoped for million viewers, many will not have watched and many more will have switched off when the “bickering” became overwhelming – recording that probably as a reflection on politicians in general not the independence campaign in particular.

And of course, as the SNP victories in 2007 and 2011 demonstrate, opinion poll results have previously written off campaigns that went on to win landslides.

So it’s worth keeping a sense of proportion – and registering two things – how far the independence movement has come and how normal it is for successful official campaigns to be supported and almost overtaken by the “fringes” they create.

The Catalan President visited Scotland in 2013. At the start of his trip Artur Mas said he was envious of the Scots agreed referendum process with London – in stark contrast to Madrid’s refusal to even discuss a Catalan vote.  But when he left a week later, Mas had changed his mind, saying the Scottish independence movement was top-down and party-led with very little grassroots activism – in contrast to the situation in Catalonia where hundreds of thousands of folk held hands in a 400-kilometre-long protest from the Pyrenees in the north along rural roads and hamlets to the provincial capital Barcelona.

Artur Mas had a point then. Not now.

The independence movement was always much larger than one party or one man.  Indeed changing the archaic, passive, top-down, over-professionalised, party-controlled practice of politics in Scotland has been a motivation for many of the folk who’ve given time, energy and cash to local Yes groups, National Collective (with its edgy, funny and thought-provoking Yestival tour) and the Radical Independence Campaign whose second Mass Canvas is on today.  For tens of thousands of Scots, independence is attractive precisely because it allows Scotland to transform itself – from a tartan version of England into the modern social democracy Scots have been voting for over seven decades.

Last night’s debate only demonstrated what those outwith party structures have known for a year.  Online papers like Bella Caledonia and this very news service, prominent campaigners like Elaine C Smith, Pat Kane, Jim Sillars and Dennis Canavan, individual writers like Gerry Hassan, Iain Macwhirter and myself, Women for Independence, Labour for Independence, Green party members like Patrick Harvie and socialists like Colin Fox – not to mention crazy groups like Otters for Yes — we and many, many more ARE the independence movement – and the business of mediating and enlivening the statistics-bound “messages” of the official Yes campaign and Scottish Government has been our mission since Day One.

So is the Salmond/Darling event a setback?

Contradictory polls make it very hard to know.  But since few outside the SNP and media were depending on Alex Salmond to “seal the deal” in person, very little has really changed.  Thousands of RIC activists are out today helping register voters in Scotland’s large housing estates.  The Yes Campaign is working with them to record canvassing returns and help arrange transport for the Big Day.

Local meetings are happening the length and breadth of the country co-ordinated by a Local Yes meetings website.  And a group of broadcasters including myself will kick off Referendum TV on Thursday to create some new perspectives in the Indy debate – a venture dreamed up by independent director Linda Graham and produced by Yes Scotland volunteer and ex BBC Scotland colleague Alison Balharry.

Creative effort and cooperation are everywhere.  It’s a case of all hands to the pump – and at long last there are many, many willing hands. Just for once, a Scottish political movement is largely managing to be the change it wants to see.

What we are witnessing is a mass outbreak of independent-mindedness as motivated Yes supporters set up their own online papers, mass canvassing movements, arts festivals, speaking tours, books, badge and T-shirt slogans, local groups and TV channels.  This is the breadth and character of the Yes movement six weeks before the Big Vote.  Few are waiting for instructions to descend from on high – most have devised their own goals, contributions and activities.  In a country as politically passive as Scotland this is the gamechanger.

So yesterday’s STV debate represented the end of something – the end of the myth that Alex Salmond or any single individual could, wizard-like, sway the voting intentions of a malleable nation.  It also represented the start of something – the start of recognition that the independence campaign is a mass movement in which the SNP is one important part.

That and a narrowing of the polls — not bad for a night’s work.

Lesley Riddoch, Pat Kane, Iain MacWhirter and Stephen Paton will present a new daily online TV show from 1-2pm from August 7-24th. Watch on Youtube or via