State of the Debate: The television debate

As part of a weekly state of the debate series, Charlie Jeffery discusses the outcome of the television debate.

We’re off again. The Commonwealth Games gave everyone time to draw a little breath, but Tuesday night’s TV duel between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling has ignited the final, hot phase of the campaign which will take us through to the 18th September.

So what did we learn from the debate? Both men probably listened to their image consultants too much. Darling was feistier than his usual persona, and frequently appeared irritable and shouty. Salmond was rather less feisty than usual, coming across as uncharacteristically subdued when he was presumably searching for a statesmanlike tone. Both were surprisingly nervous.

Was there more to it than (not very successful) image management? Not really. We heard nothing new from either. Each probed what they have long seen as the weak points of the other side rather than setting out anything that added up to an aspirational prospectus for Scotland. Both seemed to end up speaking to the converted on their own side rather than looking to persuade newcomers into their camp.

That was entirely understandable for Darling. According to all the companies carrying out opinion polls in Scotland, the No side is ahead. Darling’s aim was to reinforce the messages that have put No there, in particular the economic uncertainties, from currency to pensions, that many associate with independence. He didn’t really need to move beyond that message.

Salmond and the Yes side are behind. They need to do something to shift the terms of the debate. But Salmond spent most of his time responding to that message of uncertainty and trying to offer viewers reassurance, both in responding to Darling’s cross-examination and audience questions.

That echoed the tenor of the wider campaign: the No side have set an agenda around economic uncertainty – the ‘project fear’ Salmond felt he needed to focus on when he cross-examined Darling – and the Yes side have been drawn onto that ground to limit the damage. The No side in that sense has been better at setting the terms of debate.

The Yes side have been less successful in setting an agenda of aspiration and change around independence. Salmond did this in soundbites on Tuesday. The bedroom tax was mentioned several times. So were child poverty, food banks, nuclear weapons on the Clyde and being governed by Conservatives who have minimal representation in the House of Commons from Scotland.

But the case – one presumably of a Scotland pursuing different, better values as an independent state than it can in the UK – was not developed and given more substance. It could be a powerful case. But it will need to be put across in a more compelling and systematic way if the Yes side see it as their means of closing the gap in these last few weeks. 

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Charlie Jeffery's picture
post by Charlie Jeffery
University of Edinburgh
7th August 2014
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