Salmond v Darling – Game-Changer or Two Hour Turn-Off

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  By David Torrance
 
The era of televised debates began back in 1960 when more than 60 million voters in the United States tuned in to watch the first-ever ‘Great Debate’ between the two candidates vying for the White House, Republican vice-president Richard Nixon and Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy.
 
Appearing at a television studio in Chicago, Illinois, the first of four debates centred on domestic issues.

  By David Torrance
 
The era of televised debates began back in 1960 when more than 60 million voters in the United States tuned in to watch the first-ever ‘Great Debate’ between the two candidates vying for the White House, Republican vice-president Richard Nixon and Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy.
 
Appearing at a television studio in Chicago, Illinois, the first of four debates centred on domestic issues. Each candidate was given eight minutes to make an opening speech before a panel of correspondents cross-examined them. Finally, Messrs Nixon and Kennedy were allowed a very precise three minutes and twenty seconds to sum up

Kennedy’s pitch sounded not unlike the current argument for Scottish independence, setting out his desire to see the US fulfil its economic potential, with a steady rate of economic growth bringing sufficient extra tax revenue to pay for his planned welfare programme. Nixon, meanwhile, made like a gloomy Unionist, warning that it would be necessary to raise taxes in order to pay for additional education and medical care.

In other words, there is nothing new under the sun, neither in terms of televised political jousts nor campaigning rhetoric. Interestingly, the UK managed to resist following the US’s lead on this front for exactly half a century, although general election debates with the three main party leaders had been discussed at various points from the late 1970s onward.

When it finally happened prior to the 2010 general election it had a warping effect, with the run up to (and analysis of) each debate dominating the short campaign to such an extent that traditional campaigning (with exceptions such as Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman’ gaffe) taking place but without much media attention. There was, of course, the resulting Cleggmania, although come polling day it had largely dissipated.

I also remember attending – as a recent graduate – the first Scottish televised leaders’ debate at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre back in 1999. Donald Dewar, Alex Salmond, Jim Wallace (or was it Malcolm Bruce?) and David McLetchie all went through the motions prior to the first Scottish Parliament elections. It was indescribably dull, and had a marginal – if any – impact upon the electoral outcome.

And that’s the trouble with televised political debates, they tend to be stage-managed to within an inch of their lives, contrived to meet the expectations of broadcasters and party advisers, and therefore lack much drama and, more to the point, fail to lead anywhere particularly useful. It all comes down to who performs better and thus is deemed the most credible. The bubble demands a ‘winner’ and there’s little room for nuance.

The other problem is that it essentially grafts a legitimate feature of US elections (where the electorate votes directly for its president) onto UK or Scottish parliamentary government. Sure, how a certain leader performs will often dictate which party voters support come polling day, but it’s still an uneasy fit. Although we have an increasingly presidential style of politics, we don’t have the system that goes with it.

But we are where we are, and last week it was confirmed the first referendum debate would take place on Tuesday 5 August at STV’s studios in Glasgow. Better Together indulged in a bit of a sulk about who agreed to debate with whom and on which date, but it was bubble stuff. While it might have had a point there was little to be gained from throwing their toys out of the pram. And sure, perhaps Alex Salmond held out for the 5th to capitalise on a post-Commonwealth Games mood, but then such is politics.

Already the pre-debate narrative has started emerging, with the First Minister claiming that Alistair Darling is having the ‘heebie jeebies’ at the thought of going head to head with him in a few weeks’ time. That seems unlikely (Darling rarely betrays emotion of any kind) and, besides, Better Together can claim some success in having neutralised – through dogged persistence – calls for a debate between Salm and Cam (as I’m sure the Sun would have dubbed it).

I’ve always understood what the Prime Minister had to lose from debating the SNP leader (particularly given the rhetorical framing around posh English politicians telling Scots what to do) but at the same time David Cameron might have gained at least some kudos for biting the bullet. Given adequate briefing, the Conservative leader might even have done a half decent job – after all, he managed three such debates in high-stakes circumstances a few years ago.

And it’s also worth repeating that Salmond’s reputation as a ‘master’ debater is a little puzzling, for judging by First Minister’s Questions et al he’s no better or worse than many of his contemporaries. What he’s good at is holding a line, pushing points to infinity and dancing on the head of a pin, which isn’t quite the same as being a good debater.

Darling, on the other hand, is hardly a scintillating television performer (Salmond at least has charisma), and has a habit of saying unhelpful things (comparing the FM, for example, to a North Korean dictator). Both men will naturally be on their best behaviour come 5 August, but an ultra-cautious approach won’t necessarily make for good or stimulating telly.

Another problem is that at this advanced stage in what’s essentially been a five-decade campaign for independence (the starting point being Winnie Ewing’s by-election win in 1967) it’s very difficult to see any compelling new arguments for (or indeed against) independence emerging during a televised debate. Rather we’ll hear Salmond and Darling regurgitate the same old lines, the same old arguments and the same old factoids.

And for two hours at that. Will it be a game-changer? Perhaps. It’s the first debate after all, and the referendum campaign should properly have kicked in by that point. But it could also go horribly wrong, descending into name-calling and shouting a la Nicola Sturgeon and Johann Lamont in an infamous STV debate not that long ago. If that happens, as Darling recently remarked to the Daily Mail, the viewer response will rightly be ‘grow up’.

Back in 1960 there was a famous disconnect between the verdict of those watching Kennedy and Nixon on television as opposed to listening on radio. Among the former the handsome Senator was regarded as the outright winner, appearing tanned and confident. By contrast Nixon, recovering from a serious knee operation, looked nervous and shifty, although radio listeners – unaware of his pallid complexion – deemed him the winner. On 5 August the wireless audience is likely to pale in comparison with those watching on the box, so there’ll be nowhere for Messrs Salmond and Darling to hide.