The second Darling vs Salmond debate on 25 August was even more depressing than the first. It might have been thought that having gone through one debate the palpable nervousness both showed the first time round would have been largely gone. In the event Salmond was less nervous, but Darling was embarrassingly anxious.
Whoever thought Darling was a safe pair of hands for this type of work was profoundly wrong. The man is woefully ill equipped for a one-to one-debate. Throughout he frequently fell into stuttering and even when he did not – which was primarily when he was reading from prepared notes – his delivery was leaden. When Salmond attacked him Darling seemed peevish; when the audience derided him or asked insulting questions he was utterly at sea. (example audience comment: “I think the fundamental difference here is that the YES campaign are fighting passionately for the future of Scotland; Alastair Darling and others are fighting passionately for their jobs”) Darling spent much of the debate staring blankly ahead like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights while Salmond stood looking at him grinning insultingly. Darling also waved his hands for emphasis far too much, while his habit of pointing at Salmond was a sorry mistake.
Darling also got his strategy wrong by concentrating heavily, almost obsessively, on the point which he had laboured in the first debate, namely, what Salmond would do if there was a vote for independence and Scotland was denied a currency union with the rest of the UK . This is a seriously difficult question for Salmond, but there are only so many times a debating opponent can be prodded with the same weapon before the audience becomes restive, and restive is what they became here. The nadir of this Darling obsession came when the debate reached the section where the two politicians questioned each other. What was Darling’s first question? You’ve guessed it: “What is your plan B for the currency?” It was an open goal for Salmond who immediately taunted Darling with being a one-trick pony.
The way Darling asked questions was also feeble. Not only did he keep repeating the same things, but time and again he allowed Salmond to ask him questions when he, Darling, was supposed to be grilling Salmond. nNor did Darling seemed to have prepared himself properly, because he was constantly running into trouble with questions for which there was a perfectly reasonable answer, an answer which should have been anticipated. For example, Darling was asked what his choice of the best currency for an independent Scotland would be if a currency union was not available. That should have been his cue to say any of the alternatives on offer was unpalatable or that none was better than the others and use the opportunity to run through the various weaknesses of the currencies on offer: new currency, sterlingisation and joining the Euro. Instead Darling kept on feebly saying he would not choose anything which was second best for Scotland. That of course led to calls for him to explain why he did not back a currency union which was, of course, the best bet.
Apart from his personal deficiencies and misjudgement of which subjects to raise, Darling was at a disadvantage because he is a Scot, a Labour MP and the last Labour Chancellor. The fact that he is a Scot means he is vulnerable to any question which places him in a position where he if he answered honestly he might be portrayed as having no confidence in Scotland. In the first debate when Salmond asked Darling whether Darling believed Scotland could go it alone, Darling floundered around saying he thought Scotland could but it would not be the best thing for Scotland. This allowed Salmond to keep on pressing him by asking why he had no confidence in Scotland. Here, Darling allowed himself to be lured into flatly admitting that Scotland could use the Pound if they chose to use it because the Pound is a freely traded and convertible currency. This had Salmond bouncing around shrieking that Darling had said Scotland could use the Pound. Darling desperately tried to mend the damage by pointing out that it would mean having no say on how the Pound was managed or having a central bank to act as lender of the last resort, but the damage was done with his initial admission without qualification.
The fact that Darling is a Scot also meant that he could not easily raise the question of the interests of the rest of the UK for any suggestion that he was concerned more for the rest of the UK than Scotland risks accusations of being a Quisling in the service of England. Consequently,, those interests were only raised very briefly when Salmond tried the “will of the Scottish” people gambit again in an attempt to get Darling to agree that if there is a YES vote that would mean Salmond would have a mandate to insist on a currency union with the rest of the UK (Go into recording of the debate at 21 minutes) Darling did point out that sharing the Pound with Scotland might not be the “will of the rest of the UK”.
When Salmond repeated his threat that Scotland’s liability for a proportionate share of the UK national debt would be repudiated if a currency union was refused, Darling did not do the obvious, say that Scotland could not have their independence legally unless the Westminster Parliament repealed the Act of Union. No taking on a proportionate share of the debts, no repeal of the Act of Union. Darling could also have pointed out that the rest of the UK could block Scotland’s entry into the EU if the debt was not taken on, but failed to do so.
Being the last Labour Chancellor also allowed Salmond to attack Darling on the grounds of his economic competence because of the vast addition to the National Debt built up under his chancellorship and the massive budget deficit he left the coalition. Being a Labour MP left him open to jibes about being in bed with the Tories just because he was putting the case to stay within the Union.
There was also two other built-in advantages for Salmond which had nothing to do with Darling’s shortcomings . 200 of the audience of 220 was supposedly scientifically chosen by the polling organisation ComRes to reflect the balance of YES, NOs and Don’t Knows in the Scottish electorate. The remaining 20 , again supposedly chosen to reflect the balance of opinion in Scotland, were chosen by the BBC from those who had sent questions in prior to the debate. Whether the selection was honestly and competently made to reflect the balance of opinion, judging by the audience reaction there seemed to be more YES than NO people in the audience. The YES camp certainly made a great deal of noise while the NO camp was pretty quiet.
Darling’s final handicap was the fact that debate’s moderator Glenn Campbell behaved in a way which intentionally or not favoured Salmond. Arguably ten of the thirteen questions from the audience came from committed YES voters. It is rather difficult to understand how simple chance could have produced such a bias to one side of the debate. In addition Campbell made only half-hearted attempts to stop Salmond and Darling interrupting one another. As Salmond was the prime culprit, this gave him advantage, because whenever he interrupted he almost invariably went into a long riff which was rarely cut short by Campbell. When Darling interrupted it was generally to correct Salmond on a point of fact and his interruptions were generally short. Moreover, Darling did his cause no favours by allowing himself to look visibly put out by questions which were essentially crude abuse.
Salmond’s strategy in the second debate was straightforward: to make an emotional appeal to Scots patriotism as often as possible whilst giving as little detail as he could get away with of what would happen if there was a YES vote. He largely succeeded because of Darling’s truly dreadful performance and Campbell’s ineffective moderation, although his refusal to tie down the currency question continued to cause him discomfort and he got himself into a mess when answering a question about the loss of jobs if the Trident nuclear subs and missiles were removed from the Clyde as the SNP promised. (To the latter question Salmond claimed that the Trident Base would become the centre of Scotland’s independent defence force and this would make up for the loss of Trident. On being pressed for details of how that could be, he did his usual, simply claiming it was so. )
Some important issues other than the currency and the Nuclear deterrent were raised, the oil and gas reserves (a shouting match with different figures being thrown around), the NHS (Salmond had to admit that Scotland could not be forced to privatise the NHS because they controlled the Scottish part of it) and the entry of an independent Scotland into the EU (Salmond simply asserted that the EU would let Scotland join without being bound by the requirements of new members such as membership of the Euro). Important issues al, but l treated in a superficial fashion.
What effect did the debate have? An ICM Poll for the Guardian shortly after the debate ended gave the debate 71% to 29% to Salmond. However, the sample was unscientific, viz: ‘ICM, said the sample of 505 adults was not representative of the Scottish electorate at large and support for independence was “identical” before and after the debate. ‘
That there has been no radical shift is unsurprising because of the unsatisfactory nature of the debates which provided all too little hard information. For the onlooker, the two debates could almost be reduced to the unwillingness or inability of Salmond to address the currency question meaningfully and Darling’s nervousness and general ineptitude which showed all too bleakly just how much modern politicians rely on the recital of set positions and are unable to think on their feet. As vehicles for informing the voters in the referendum they were next to worthless.
All in all, a most dismal display of the meagre quality of our politicians.