The build-up to last night’s STV debate on Scottish independence, like the rest of the referendum campaign, seemed to last forever. The briefing and counter-briefing started weeks before, and even the process of agreeing a date was bruising. But one thing was widely accepted – Alex Salmond, Scotland’s greatest living debater, would enter as the clear favourite, and Alistair Darling should be glad to get out alive.
It’s funny how things work out.
It is fair to say both men stumbled through their opening remarks, nerves seemingly affecting delivery. One was left wondering exactly what had transpired in the green room to leave them both so flustered.
The next surprise was the audience. Little in the way of support for either side to begin with, but gradually becoming very vocal and, perhaps surprisingly, not always buying the easy wins and applause lines that spinners might have expected them to. Early on, Salmond attempted to bluster over a Darling point and looked visibly hurt to be greeted with jeers rather than the clapping he usually gets from his Stepford MSPs in Holyrood. As Simon Pia wittily observed, he looked a wee bit vulnerable without Tricia Marwick (long-time Salmond ally and now presiding officer of the Scottish parliament) as the referee.
There were some well-rehearsed lines – the ‘best of both worlds’ and ‘getting the government we vote for’ were duly exercised – but few sparks flew until the opening session was over and we moved to the part where the two leaders cross-examined each other.
Darling opened on one of the central issues in this debate, the possible currency of an independent Scotland. He challenged the SNP’s frequent assertion that Scotland would be able to persuade the United Kingdom to agree to a currency union – and frankly it is a bit like the idea of a just-divorced couple deciding to share a bank account – and asked for Salmond’s ‘plan B’ should this not work out.
It seems a remarkable strategic blunder by the SNP to not have a more coherent fallback position on currency. Instead they have a set of undeveloped, unattractive options, ‘some of which are perfectly viable’ as Salmond himself said last night.
Darling was relentless. He started listing the different options, challenging Salmond to rule them out. Salmond blustered, diverted, and attempted to suggest that Darling himself had supported a currency union in an interview in 2013. This was true, to an extent, but he also said it could only work with a political union – an argument for a no vote. Alex seemed determined not to quote that part. But as the question of what his ‘plan B’ was continued to ring out, you could see and hear that the audience was losing patience with his lack of answer.
And then it got weird. Salmond started his cross-examination by listing what can only be described as a set of Twitter memes. He dredged up an old Andy Burnham joke about driving on the right in an independent Scotland. He talked about the threat from outer space. He talked about the pandas in Edinburgh zoo. Fortunately the ‘spin room’ must have been soundproofed, because I certainly could not hear Nicola Sturgeon’s anguished screams. But the audience looked on in silent disbelief. Darling told him he was making a fool of himself and got loud applause.
And to add insult to injury for hapless Salmond, after the cross-examinations were over and it was the audience’s turn for questions, what did they want to ask about? Currency. Pensions. The hard economic issues that Darling had focused on and Salmond had blustered over. And this audience was pulling no punches. We moved on to tuition fees, and Salmond looked like he at last had a winning card to play, but two sceptics in the audience brought him back to earth with a bump. Both men were stung, but it was clear by this point that it was not Salmond’s night.
As the debate closed this result was confirmed by an ICM poll for the Guardian, which gave Darling a 56 per cent to 44 per cent win, and by ITV News’ undecideds panel which unanimously said Darling had come out on top. And when even the Herald’s yes-supporter-in-chief Iain Macwhirter is saying Salmond did not have a good night, it was pretty clear it had been a disaster for the yes side.
There can of course be no complacency as we head to the final stages of this campaign. And there are three more televised debates to go, as well as countless more doors to be knocked. But Salmond needed a win last night, and he did not get it. Well done and thank you Alistair Darling and the Better Together team. Let’s get this won.
Duncan Hothersall is a Scottish business owner and Labour activist
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