Now that the Commonwealth Games are over, Scotland, to its delight, will get back to the final stretch of the independence referendum campaign. And hostilities start again with a Major Campaign Event.
This evening, Alistair Darling, the leader of the Better Together campaign takes part in a two hour debate on Scottish independence with First Minister Alex Salmond. It’ll be broadcast, and streamed for those of you south of the border) from 8pm.
I have to say I’m not wildly chuffed at the choice of date. I’m currently on holiday on the beautiful Black Isle and would much rather be looking at the seals and birds outside our cottage than having my blood pressure raised by some televisual argy bargy but I know that I won’t be able to stop myself from watching.
STV has not had the best history with its four debates it’s screened so far. All have involved Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for the pro-independence side against four pro UK people, Michael Moore, Alistair Carmichael and Labour’s leader and deputy Johann Lamont and Anas Sarwar. All have so far culminated in the protagonists shouting at each other in a crescendo of hyperbole and general unpleasantness.
I suggested after the last debacle when Lamont and Sturgeon both fell into the gutter in the first few minutes and never emerged that the next debate should take place round an undecided voter’s kitchen table. We’re not quite getting that but you would hope that a studio audience and the primetime audience beyond would inspire more constructive behaviour. Sadly, though, the part where the participants cross -examine each other, which has hitherto been the nadir of all the debates has been retained.
Darling is no doubt locked in a room somewhere drilling his lines. He’ll be mock-debated up to his eyeballs. I’m sure the last thing he needs or wants is unsolicited advice from a random Liberal Democrat, but here’s what I think he should do tonight.
- Be himself
You know, when Darling is relaxed and chatting about stuff, he comes across really well. That night in Glasgow with Jim Naughtie when I saw him he was funny, relevant, animated and interesting. I know a studio debate is a different kettle of fish but he needs to bring that sort of attitude with you. It’s what you need to puncture the bravado and bluster he’ll get from Salmond.
I’ve often been tearing my hair out at his media people because too often he has appeared as the outsider which just feeds into the narrative of remote Westminster. While the nationalists have someone sitting in the studio with the presenter, he’s been down the line from London or standing on a cold, rainy street corner.
He has said, very genuinely, that you have as much passion and emotion behind wanting to keep the UK together as the nationalists have about independence. We, the audience, needs to see and feel that. That’s more important than the most well-rehearsed barrage of facts and statistics.
2) Focus on what’s important – it’s the undecideds who matter
Much of the audience, especially those talking about it on Twitter, will have already decided how they are going to vote and will not be for changing their minds. It’s those who haven’t decided that need convincing. Don’t bother preaching to the converted. People will turn off very quickly if he just spout numbers at them. He needs to strike the right balance between being specific and keeping people with him. Be practical and talk about what each thing means for them. The shakiest Yes ground is on currency, the EU, pensions and oil revenues. They are the last things Salmond will want to talk about. He will want to go on about who donates to Better Together or the Bedroom Tax. Don’t let him.
Darling must not be distracted from the points he wants to make.
Also, mustn’t make out that an independent Scotland would be a post apocalyptic economic wasteland within weeks, or years. People won’t believe him and it gives Salmond wiggle room. He will also be full of passion and rhetoric about how an independent Scotland would be this blissful little fair and perfect society. It’s important that Darling paints as inspiring a vision of Scotland’s future as part of the UK.
3) Don’t let Salmond tell lies about the UK Coalition
One thing I’ve noticed, particularly when Labour people have been debating, is that when the Yes side tells blatant lies about what the UK coalition has done, they don’t get the rebuttal they deserve. The NHS has not been privatised in England. People might not be fussed about aspects of the reorganisation but it remains free at the point of use when people need it. In any event, none of it can or will affect Scotland.
4) Control the cross-examination.
In the four previous debates, Nicola Sturgeon avoided difficult questions simply by shouting her own questions back when she was being cross-examined. And every single one of her opponents fell for it. Darling needs to remember who’s in charge and whose turn it is to answer if Salmond should try that tactic again.
5) Call Willie
Willie Rennie has form for winning arguments with Salmond. He’s consistently been the only leader to land any significant blows on the First Minister at First Minister’s Questions, a fact acknowledged by the press. He’s done it over the First Minister’s links with the rich and powerful, early years education, college funding and civil liberties. Salmond never quite knows what to expect with him. I hope that Darling has spoken to Willie and taken some advice about how to do it.
I have to say I’m not expecting much from tonight’s debate. Another two men shouting at each other in a tv studio is unlikely to set my heather on fire. It would be good if they could really produce a fantastically inspiring couple of hours but I’m not going to hold my breath.
I think Darling’s authenticity will trump Salmond’s showmanship so long as he makes a positive case for the UK as well as highlighting the massive risks of independence.