Fallout from First Debate
The last few weeks have seen rumblings in the Yes camp about Alex Salmond following his performance in the first debate. Mutterings of leadership bids, comments being made to newspapers and a push to say that Yes is more than the First Minister. It has been a tough few weeks for him. Indeed he even said recently that he would resign and disband the SNP if it meant winning independence.
It was an overreaction to high (some would say impossible) expectations that were set on the night, mostly by the Yes camp itself, and it was noticeable that comments about a presumed Salmond victory were tempered this time around.
The First Minister is at his strongest when his back is against the wall. From leadership battles, to political misjudgements, he has a great ability to bounce back when faced with adversity and indeed often seems to enjoy being the underdog. Anyone who has followed his career will have known that we were unlikely to have witnessed a repeat performance.
And so it was that on the night he put his gentle, more caring hat into a box, and brought out what can only be described as the Salmond Classic. He was combative, aggressive, and mocking whenever Darling spoke. He ran roughshod over proceedings in a way that would be familiar to any regular viewer of First Ministers Questions. Here was Salmond in a comfortable zone – clearly with more freedom to be himself.
Darling didn’t have a chance this time. He was nervous from the outset, and was unable to get in front of any of the issues. This was the Darling everyone had expected to turn up at the last debate.
The strategy of both was clear before they even stood on the podiums. Darling would focus in on the currency union question, while Salmond would take a wider look at social justice issues. And so it came to pass.
While the points Darling made from the previous debate still stand, his unwillingness to look at any other aspect of the debate made the audience grow restless. He focussed on currency in his opening remarks, and again in his cross examination. While Salmond didn’t really have anything new to bring to the table, he had some good lines. He spoke about having “three Plan B’s” which, while not making much sense, sounded good. He also continued to muddy the waters around using the pound, claiming that Darling saying that it could continue to be used was some sort of revelation. It wasn’t really, as he has said it time and again. but it didn’t matter. It sounded good. The strategy this time was to sound confident and invigorate his troops, and that is just what Salmond did.
On the flip side, Darling came under sustained attacks on the NHS, foodbanks and child poverty. He struggled to rebound as the First Minister laid the charges at the feet of the Conservative government and by extension Darling. When Darling would attempt to discuss Labour policy, he was shouted down, being reminded he was speaking as the leader of Better Together. Of course this didn’t then stop Salmond from trying to make Darling defend Conservative policy. Unfair? Perhaps, but it made for compelling television.
None of the content was particularly interesting and the tone had all the rough and tumble of a playground spat. The leaders shouted over each other, and moments like Salmond bellowing “you work for the Tories!” made the spectacle a little unedifying. But it cannot be denied that the debate has felt a little stale in these last few months, with a sense that everyone has been going through the motions. Bread and circuses is what was on offer last night, and it might not necessarily have been the worst thing in the world to bring to the table.
Who the Debate Was For
Salmond gave the performance many have suspected he has wanted to for a while. While poll after poll says that this doesn’t appeal to those much needed female voters, there has also been a clear need for the First Minister to reassert his authority. Some generous Yes supporters have suggested that the FM intentionally lost the last debate to come back stronger in there one (what wrestling calls rope-a-dope) but it is hard to see the campaign really wanted the fortnight of bad headlines that it received.
His performance last night was Salmond Uncut, messy and inconsistent but always dominating and full of righteous anger. At times Darling was reduced to simply shaking his head. This wasn’t an appeal to undecided voters; it was the coach giving the pre-game speech to his team, getting fire in their bellies as they head out for the final push in this campaign.
It is clear the audience responded to this, with a snap poll of 500 voters giving to it Salmond by 71%. However questions need to start to be raised about how far debates in the UK actually influence polling. The same 500, who were hand-picked to represent 51% No, and 49% Yes, were also asked after the debate how they would now vote. The figures remained 51% No and 49% Yes. That is perhaps the bigger issue at the heart of all of this – has it changed any minds? The polling from the first debate failed to show any lasting impact, and going by last night, it is hard to see this trend changing.
Postal votes are being issued from today. For all intents and purposes voting has commenced. Now the debates are over, the real battle for the hearts and minds of Scotland begins in earnest.