Yes Scotland is circulating polling figures that suggest Alex Salmond is the winner of last night’s debate. There are stats to the contrary going around too. Either way, as a Yes supporter I was left with a sense of disappointment. Not because Salmond lost necessarily, but because we need a big shift in the polls in the next few weeks and this was a missed opportunity to push them in the right direction. I’m going to post this article, fall asleep, then wake up and head straight to the Celtic- Legia Warsaw game, another clash in which the good guys need to make a lot of progress in a short amount of time. Salmond and Darling will debate two more times, we’re a third of the way into this clash; if it’s 0-0 after half an hour tonight, Legia Warsaw, like Darling, will be pretty chuffed.
The last series of political debates I watched so intently was Obama vs Romney, and Salmond made some of the same mistakes tonight as Obama did on the first of his debates:
Obama came across as boring and technocratic against Romney, Salmond’s fault was to seem pernickety and pedantic. In his opening address Salmond gave the proportion of countries in ‘The Commonwealth’ and The EU that are smaller or comparable in population to Scotland. But he did these both in quick succession making it difficult to take in. It was just confusing and irrelevant numbers being hurled at us, the opposite of stirring. Throughout the debate he made the similar mistake of relying on outside sources and being forced to cite them as part of what he was saying. Stories from Newsnight, The Guardian, The Sunday Herald, The No Campaign Website, The White Paper… it may have been accurate, but it was tedious to listen to. It worked the first time when he ambushed Darling with the quotes from Newsnight and drew a laugh as he produced the transcript, but it quickly became tiresome. It’s important to seem authoritative, but the provision of dates and page numbers don’t engage viewers.
He also made an error when he pushed Darling to provide a ‘yes or no’ answer to his question about whether David Cameron was correct to say Scotland could be successful after independence. It was a perfectly effective line of attack, to encourage Darling to accept the notion and therefore normalise it in the minds of the people Better Together are trying to frighten. The problem, though, was that it started to sound like Fox News badgering (I’d say ‘no pun intended’, but I don’t know if that even counts). Darling had scored points earlier by accusing Salmond of failing to answer important questions. This might have seemed like a chance to retaliate, but unfortunately Salmond was asking a question the answer to which was of no real consequence. It didn’t sound like ‘asking a difficult question’, it was more like ‘making him say something he doesn’t want to’. Salmond compared this moment to Paxman’s grilling of Michael Howard, however there was one crucial difference; Michael Howard was in power and therefore worth holding to account. Alistair Darling isn’t. It looked like trying to win an argument rather than trying to persuade viewers.
Just as the first debate between Obama and Romney allowed for the challenger to attack the record of the incumbent, but not the other way aound, tonight’s formant favoured Darling significantly. An attack on Salmond is an attack on the figurehead of the Yes movement, whereas an attack on Darling is just an attack on some boring posh boy nobody really gives a fuck about. Salmond did bring up Darling’s past, but ad hominem attacks against Darling are hardly a blow to the union itself. Darling repeatedly said that he would ask tough questions because he knew Salmond didn’t have the answers, but what could Salmond hit Darling with?
One line of attack was ‘project fear’ and the scare tactics Darling has been employing. Unfortunately Salmond got the tone of this slightly wrong. Because he didn’t want to do Darling’s scare-mongering for him by bringing up any claims that might trouble the undecided, he decided to raise some of the more laughable statements made by unionist politicians. These were so ludicrous, though, that they were irrelevant to the debate and made Salmond seem intent on dwelling upon nonsense. He would have been better advised to opt for such as; ‘Why are nuclear weapons safe enough to store near Glasgow but too dangerous for Plymouth?’ and ‘How does it feel to be up here as a Labour politician doing Cameron’s dirty work for him?’ These would have been much more difficult for Darling to answer. Of course he would’ve obfuscated, but the point would’ve been to force him to defend the aspects of the British state that Scottish people disapprove of; after all, it’s what he’s trying to persuade us to put up with. Salmond did mention nuclear weapons, child poverty and tuition fees, but he didn’t manage to make Darling justify himself in these contexts when he got the chance to interrogate him.
But while it may feel more salient as a Yes voter to scrutinise Salmond’s tactics, it’s would be wrong to conclude a summary of the debate without acknowledging that Darling, regardless of his avoidance of defeat tonight, is fundamentally in the wrong.
Darling’s best line of attack was on the ‘lack of plan B’ on the currency union (covered in more detail here). It’s worth just reminding ourselves that this is a deeply cynical ploy by the No campaign to effectively blackmail Scottish voters into remaining part of the union. It’s a threat of punishment if we leave. Sadly it might be enough to scare enough Scots into staying, but as Jonathon Freedland argued back in March:
“in referendums, as in elections, there is such a thing as a moral mandate. If no wins only by accentuating the negative, September’s vote may reject independence – but it will hardly count as an endorsement of Britain.”
Darling is one of many in the Westminster Labour party fighting for the status quo out of self-interest more than anything else. All of his ilk will fear the consequences for their personal circumstances in the event of a Yes vote, but few will have considered the potential damage a pyrrhic No victory could do. They may persuade Scotland to stay, but they’ll do so by sacrificing any pretence that they’re driven by ideals, any sense that they’ve got the Scottish people’s best interests at heart, and any lingering notion that Labour and the Tories are anything but two heads on the same serpent. Winning by the means chosen by Project Fear would rob the UK of its moral mandate, trapping Scottish people in a union they don’t want but are too afraid to leave.
Darling says that Salmond has no convincing alternatives to currency union, in other words; Salmond has no convincing plan to protect the people of Scotland from the vengeance of Darling and his chums in Westminster should we demonstrate the temerity to vote Yes.
Darling will think of last night as a victory, but as we’ve all been reminded lately, some victories aren’t worth having.