Lesley Riddoch: Seconds out for Round 2 of debate

SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE: Tonight’s bout between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling may have a different outcome, writes Lesley Riddoch
Pundits gave Darling the win over Salmond in the first televised meeting, but the public didnt. Picture: Getty ImagesPundits gave Darling the win over Salmond in the first televised meeting, but the public didnt. Picture: Getty Images
Pundits gave Darling the win over Salmond in the first televised meeting, but the public didnt. Picture: Getty Images

THE UK and world audience for the Salmond v Darling BBC debate tonight should easily exceed the million folk who watched round one.

Yet the hype around this second TV clash is not nearly as feverish as it was before the contest on STV three weeks ago. Maybe that’s because the second bout is rarely as raw and surprising as the first. Maybe Aunty is more sedate than commercial TV. But maybe opinion has shifted since 5 August.

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Despite the pundits’ assertion that Alex Salmond lost, the polls moved his way. Commentators (including this one) were proved wrong in their assessment of “undecided” opinion and grassroots Yes campaigns have flourished – #yesbecause trended worldwide on Twitter last week and the mass canvass of housing estates by the Radical Independence Campaign revealed 60 per cent backing for Yes amongst poorer Scots.

Only the very detached could ignore the growing wave of optimism in the Yes camp during recent weeks. And though the very detached – not indyref anoraks – are the voters Messrs Salmond and Darling must reach, the STV debate may yet prove to have been a tipping point in a rapidly evolving referendum campaign.

Round Two is different from Round One in several important ways.

Expectations of the two men have changed – and that can only help Alex Salmond. Ladbrokes have Alistair Darling as favourite at 8/11. That puts the SNP leader in his preferred position as the all-too-easy-to-under-estimate underdog. Last time round the First Minister entered the STV bout as favourite thanks to his formidable reputation at the Holyrood despatch box, two pundit-defying Scottish election victories and a media image, crafted over seven years at the helm of the Scottish Government, as a powerful, clever but sleekit character – a cross between Shrek and Merlin with a bit of Oliver Cromwell chucked in.

Welded into this constructed image – like the Man in the Mask – Salmond and the Yes campaign allowed expectations to grow. Of course the SNP leader would vanquish the dull, earnest Alistair Darling at a stroke with cunning offers, unexpected revelations and an exposition of the case for Scottish independence so eloquent and powerful it would leave the Better Together leader sounding like a leaden, flat-footed, uninspired, doom-laden accountant. It didn’t happen.

And in hindsight, it was never going to happen.

Firstly, Alex Salmond is not and never has been a superhuman political wizard – and thank goodness for it. This constructed image of the mighty First Minister has elements of truth but substantially more elements of media creation which have allowed the Yes campaign to be portrayed as nothing more than an empty vessel for the boundless ambition and crazy, separatist urges of Big Eck.

Of course all is fair in love and politics, and in a political landscape so devoid of striking personalities it was inevitable that a man so capable in the limelight and so fond of it should prompt a spot of myth-making by a wrong-footed and personality-focused media.

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Heavyweight yet slippery, possessed of wizard-like powers and a hypnotic control over many Scottish voters (why else did so many vote SNP?) Salmond has been transformed into a latter-day Robert the Bruce – fighting the London establishment to win control in Scotland for his own murky, greedy and nefarious ends. It makes good copy. It sells papers. It gives us all a laugh. But this sinister creation isn’t real. And most of the public know it.

That’s why Alex Salmond has positive public approval ratings as First Minster and party leader, unlike David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg or any of his Scottish party rivals and despite their best efforts to style him as a Scottish dictator.

Secondly, there was a presumption that Salmond would thrive in any arena when – like any normal person – he has become highly adapted to a particular one. Successful leaders usually stick to situations which accentuate their most positive attributes. Alex Salmond has perfected the art of ducking, weaving and taunting in the Holyrood Debating Chamber – a stylised, pantomime version of debate as far as ordinary voters are concerned. In Holyrood, side-stepping a difficult question to parade a government achievement earns delighted whoops from followers. In real life, however, not answering questions or repeating platitudes earns boos, shouts, catcalls and mocking laughter.

Both Salmond and Darling came unstuck three weeks ago before a feisty audience which didn’t operate by the rules of party political debate. The man who has managed to adapt to that reality will reap the dividends tonight.

Thirdly, there’s a more positive reason for Salmond failing to appear as the arch-pugilist last time round. Undecided and female voters don’t like harsh voices, rudeness, jabbing fingers, aggressive point-scoring… or an obsession with one single, relatively technical subject.

So if Alistair Darling makes currency his sole argument again tonight – or shifts to an endless argument over oil reserves – he’ll get bouquets from pundits and brickbats from floating voters.

The no-leaning press have wildly overstated the likely impact on voters’ confidence of Sir Ian Wood’s recent pessimistic estimates of remaining oil and gas reserves. Not only is he contradicted by fellow economist Professor Sir Donald Mackay and industry body Oil and Gas UK – Sir Ian is contradicted by his own more optimistic predictions earlier this year.

As Professor John Curtice observed in a blog last week: “It looks as though the No side’s return to the [currency] issue in and since the leaders’ debate has failed to impress voters – and may even have backfired.” Any similar preoccupation with highly-contested oil claims tonight could rapidly do the same.

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So this time Alex Salmond could “win” – expectations are more realistic, folk accept the currency issue is deadlocked, analysts acknowledge Salmond’s understated manner scored with undecided voters and working class voters without landlines – beyond the reach of official polls – appear to be strongly yes.

Things are moving.

So the main question is this: will Alex Salmond waste time responding to the negative arguments of Alistair Darling or will he move to immediately assert the central case of the wider Yes movement – that Scotland has a distinct political culture and must move to defend and develop it?

A nation is waiting to find out.