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.


Adrian B
2014-07-17 21:11

If it turns out to be two hours of TV punctuated with 3 long minutes of TV advertisements every 7 minutes as ITV often do for some of the larger audience bits of TV then it will not be worth watching at all.

The Game-changer will come after the votes have been cast and there is less opportunity for our media to cash in on an event that is designed to be all about the people of Scotland rather than for the benefit of the wealthy who largely inhabit a part of these isles several hundred miles to the south of ourselves.
From The Suburbs
2014-07-17 21:21

Well David why don’t you persuade your hero David Cameron to step up to the podium?
2014-07-17 21:31

Abertay University showed how these events should be conducted. If STV even get close to a similar format there will be nowhere for “Darling to hide”.
2014-07-17 21:55

just what we need: more encouragement for the electorate to believe that they are voting for personalities/individuals. I know polls make Salmond the most popular (or least unpopular) of political leaders in the UK but yes and strong no voters aren’t going to be influenced by this, whereas many of the persuadable nos already think this is just about Alex Salmond (cos that’s what the media tell them). Any good work activists are doing to convince them otherwise may be jeopardised in my opinion.
2014-07-17 22:00

Darling rarely betrays emotion of any kind? You’re kidding aren’t you?
He positively bristles with sullen frustration and anger, and becomes incoherent and tongue tied when his assertions are questioned.

I pinch myself regularly just to make sure I’m not dreaming and Better Together chose Darling to front the No ‘Campaign’. (Are we still calling it a campaign?).

This debate won’t be a game changer, because Darling is a has been, who is now a powerless opposition backbencher without the pips to honour any promise he makes. He physically can’t change anything without asking permission from his superiors, the Tory government.

Alex Salmond will again show his caliber, whether its a constructive debate or circus sideshow. YES is already a much bigger movement than a TV show.
2014-07-17 22:32

Darling had enough political savvy to flip his house 4 times, but had to hire an accountant to work out his expenses claims. He charged that to the taxpayer but had to give rthe monet back when he was caught.

Suitable skills to be a Chancellor of the Exchequer?
Caithness Calling
2014-07-18 07:22

This time he is fighting for his peerage, so he may pull something out of the bag. I have no idea what though, because the NO campaign bag is obviously empty.

2014-07-17 22:38

YES/Alex Salmond are too savvy to permit yet another programme of continual interruptions from a NO man such as Darling.
Currency/EU membership must not dominate as this will just play to the NO agenda on issues that require negotiation anyway.
And of course the public will be bored out of out of their skulls if it’s the same old same old slagging match. On balance Salmond should wipe the floor with this careerist back bencher who would rather live in a “bigger country with clout in the world” Great opportunity to present a vision of a post Indy Scotland. Go for it Alex!
Alien Act
2014-07-17 23:16

Quoting ramstam:

On balance Salmond should wipe the floor with this careerist back bencher who would rather live in a “bigger country with clout in the world”

Darling and the rest of the Scots in Westminster (SNP excluded of course) are scared of falling off the gravy train and in to obscurity.
I don’t believe that they would support the no camps propaganda if they were no being paid too.

It is difficult to convince a man when his job relies on him remaining unconvinced.
Or words to that effect.

2014-07-18 18:12

‘ It iis difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’, Upton Sinclair.

Explains the political climate in westminster very well indeed, except for a few decent mps.

2014-07-18 00:01

So most of Scotland is looking forward to that game-changing referendum. It’s understandable, even patently obvious that British Nationalists are feigning (yawn) boredom with a debate they promised in 2007 “Would Never Happen” and the ensuing civic movement towards democracy but Scotland is again welcoming debates and home-rule victories of 1979, 1997, repeated for 2014!
2014-07-18 01:21

The debate mustn’t just cover the No agenda, with Alex Salmond rebutting Alistair Darling’s claims about the disaster that will be independence.

We must have equal focus on what a NO vote means, on life after a NO vote, to give the audience a chance to assess both sides of the argument.

And there we may see why BT are putting forward someone who has no role in either the current government or opposition. Darling can say anything he likes as he won’t be in a position to make good on any of his promises, and he won’t be speaking for the current or any future UK government.
2014-07-18 08:06

With Cameron refusing to debate, despite his vow to fight with every fibre of his being to maintain the UK, Darling has been left holding the Union fort, so to speak. The only other alternatives would have been either the bumbling Carmichael or proven porky teller Danny Alexander. The NO Campaign are not exactly spoiled for choice!
Mad Jock McMad
2014-07-18 08:24

Given all Darling can do is ignore the questions, talk over Salmond, cry its not fair, blame the cybernats, obfuscate about what is just so much better about the current arrangement, then have to listen to ‘experts’ – I will not be bothering.
2014-07-18 10:43

The fact that Torrance is trying to convince us it will be of no relevance to the way people vote leads one to strongly suspect that:

1. It will be a game-changer, with Salmond fully exposing the inadequacies of both Darling and his “argument”.

2. Lots of “undecided” voters will be influenced – in favour of “Yes”.

3. “No” are bricking themselves at the prospect.
2014-07-18 10:54

shades of michael collins being held responsible for partition as an unsatisfactory result when de valera new politically that was the best he could get. cameron needs a fall guy for “losing” scotland. so is it in the bag? does cameron smell defeat and is he looking to distance himself from it?
2014-07-18 15:33

I am soooo looking forward to this debate!

I do expect Mr Darling to put forward VERY positive arguments for the Union and I don’t expect him to talk about fascists , Kim Jong , Mugabe , cybernats or any reference to Nazis.

Oooh! I just can’t wait!
2014-07-18 17:21

Be warned too… Whatever happens during the debate will be spun as a defeat for Alex Salmond.

It is regularly reported in some circles that Johann Lamont gets the better of Mr Salmond every week at FMQ, and yet anybody watching FMQ knows that is a complete distortion of the truth.

My advice to Alex Salmond would be to take his own refreshments to the hospitality room prior to the debate. Don’t trust the water Mr Salmond. ‘They’ really are getting desperate and running out of time.
2014-07-18 18:17

Darlings a patsy.

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