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Scotland Decides ’14: Salmond strikes back in TV debate, but will it be a game changer?

Darling appeared to struggle in the second debate. David Cheskin/PA

When Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling lined up for the first TV debate on August 5, Darling came out the surprise winner for the Better Together campaign. Few would disagree that the positions were reversed in the second debate between the two men. According to a Guardian/ICM exit poll, 71% thought Salmond came out on top.

Darling made many of the same arguments, and some new good points along the way, but most of the punches seemed not to connect. We asked our panel what went wrong for him, and how might that impact upon the campaign.

John McKendrick, Senior Lecturer, Glasgow Caledonian University

There were fairly robust arguments on both sides, but in terms of delivery, Salmond had the better of it. He seemed to ruffle some of Darling’s feathers. Especially on currency.

By the time they got to the interview segment, which was so important for Darling in the first debate, Salmond had made a good stab at the currency issue. He addressed the issue of “plan B” from the outset, making the point that he had three of them, but that his priority was to get a mandate from the Scottish people and that his job is to argue for what is best for them.

Darling didn’t manage to come at it from a different angle. He just stuck doggedly to asking the “plan B question”. Ironically, he then chose not to answer a very similar question when it was posed to him. Unable to change tack, he started to sound a bit too scripted. He needed to think quicker on his feet. In his closing speech, he was too obviously reading from a script. On the other hand, Salmond is a performer, stepping out from behind the lectern to address the audience – it was more engaging. At times Darling seemed exasperated, got himself a bit anxious that things weren’t going his way. He came across as very stilted, as if he knew he had had a bad night and just wanted out of there.

In fairness, he did still get across some good arguments. It wasn’t a knock out. He was punching away for the 15 rounds. He sounded stronger when he talked about the numbers adding up, the argument about how you can’t spend and save at the same time. He made some reasonable arguments on poverty, but the audience weren’t receptive. In truth, it’s not fair to trash Labour’s record on tackling poverty. Salmond got away with saying Labour were in bed with the Tories on welfare. And it was misleading of him to suggest that everybody in Scotland is against welfare reform.

But Salmond sounded very strong saying 100,000 more kids would be in child poverty by 2020, and that reconfiguring welfare payments to the disabled have caused a similar number of people to lose money they can ill-afford. It made it very difficult for Darling to make a good case for the union in terms of what lies ahead when Salmond could give concrete examples of things that are getting worse now. And Darling could offer nothing fresh when he was asked for three ways in which Better Together would introduce new job-creating opportunities in Scotland. I had my head in my hands at that point.

On the BBC commentary afterwards, [Scottish political editor] Brian Taylor was quite careful, saying Salmond supporters would be walking away slightly happier. That’s a very generous interpretation. If it was a cup final, Salmond walked away with the trophy.

So was it a game changer? It might be for some people. It will certainly check the negativity for the Yes campaign that surrounded the first debate. Anybody who thought the first debate changed the game in favour of No will have to think again. Saying that, I don’t think anything on its own will be enough to get people to vote for, or against, independence. But you would have more confidence in the Yes campaign after this debate, certainly.

Trevor Salmon, Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Relations, University of Aberdeen

Much of Salmond’s theme was the current situation, the cuts, the National Health Service, the bedroom tax, the number of people in poverty and so on. I thought Salmond spoke well on these issues. It was basically anti-Conservative, arguing that Labour were in bed with the Tories on the cuts.

Darling said an awful lot about risk, about the gamble of independence, the uncertainty of the oil price. He sounded better on those subjects. When he was asked by the audience whether he could give examples in the last five years where being part of the UK has been beneficial for Scotland, apart from the currency he had no good answer.

Darling did well to make the point that the Scottish government is against Trident but joining NATO. But he should have said more about it. He should have said that if you are against nuclear weapons, why are you joining an alliance that’s pledged to use them if necessary.

On the question of who won, when Salmond started talking about the NHS and welfare and so forth, I thought: people will remember that. He won the heart argument. Darling won the head argument, especially about the currency. But the audience were behind Salmond more, particularly as the evening went on. I’d say it was a narrow victory for Salmond overall.

Darling and his advisers obviously believe it’s about the economy and finance. You could argue that one of the whole problems with Better Together is the vision thing, which caused them problems tonight. Salmond has this thing about the Scottish people making decisions for Scotland. Better Together don’t seem to have come up with the heart thing.

But I am sure many people will have switched off because they were talking over each other. I couldn’t believe the chairman let them do that. It was like a schoolboy fight in some ways. When you watch the American presidential election debates, they are structured. They don’t allow anybody to interrupt. They all have to stick to their time. It will be very interesting to see what the viewing figures at 9.30pm were like compared to 8.30pm. In that sense both sides lost. That may have undermined the result for the Yes campaign.

To read other editions of Scotland Decides ‘14, click here.

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