State of the debate: Seconds out, round two ...

Published: 26 August 2014

As part of our weekly state of the debate series, Charlie Jeffery discusses the outcome of last night's television debate.

This time the consensus is that it was Alex Salmond who came out ahead. The instant polling on the BBC's referendum debate in Glasgow called it for him by a wide margin. And most of the immediate media commentary had Salmond as the winner too.

His was certainly a more combative performance than in the STV debate

As expected he pressed hard on the NHS, raising fears (scare stories in Darling's view) about the consequences of potential NHS privatisation by UK Governments on the Scottish Parliament budget. There has been plenty of debate this last week about how this fear is not (yet) actually affecting the Scottish budget, but it formed part of a narrative around public services and social justice (we heard plenty again on bedroom tax, child poverty, food banks) that seemed more rounded than three weeks ago.

That narrative also connected with another theme: of Darling being part and parcel of a cross-party campaign with a Conservative Party deemed to be hostile to public services and uncaring about social justice. This, of course, is a message always good for mobilising the troops in Scotland, perhaps especially in Glasgow, and was leavened for good measure with mentions of Margaret Thatcher (twice), the poll tax and deindustrialisation.

And Salmond - much more focused this time in the cross-examination section - genuinely disconcerted Darling on the question of what additional powers would be on offer to Scotland in the event of a No vote. His question - could Darling name three additional powers Scotland would get that would create jobs? - threw Darling who mumbled something about the Work Programme before awkwardly trying to move off the subject.

On this and other matters Alistair Darling didn't get an easy ride from the audience. The audience had been selected to be evenly split between Yes and No voters, but seemed markedly less sympathetic to Darling. It clearly lost patience with him for what they seemed to see as him playing a cracked record on the currency question: just what is Plan B?

But while Salmond never gave a clear answer on what Plan B would be if the UK Government were indeed to reject a formal currency union after a Yes vote, he dealt more effectively with the issue. In the STV debate Salmond did little more than quote some of Darling's own earlier thoughts on a currency union being desirable in the event of a yes vote. This time he mentioned a variety of alternative currency arrangements as possibilities that could be considered, but emphasised how he wanted his Plan A of formal currency union to be understood as the 'sovereign will of the Scottish people' which would be a mandated negotiating position in the event of a yes vote.

He also argued that sharing the UK's debt would be part and parcel of a currency union, and that the debt wouldn't be shared if no currency union were agreed. Whether all this would be seen as credible by the guild of economists is moot, but it was presented more confidently and at least filled out what was a very scant line of argument in the first debate.

The other issue Darling pushed on was on the value of remaining North Sea oil reserves, the (volatile) tax revenues they might generate, and the threat such volatility could pose for spending on public services. He drew heavily on Sir Ian Wood's sceptical comments last week about Scottish Government projections of remaining reserves. Given that other senior oil industry figures and commentators have set out views different to Sir Ian's this didn't appear an especially fruitful line. It descended into an increasingly shouted and unenlightening exchange about the Yes side gambling with our children's futures by relying on a volatile revenue source, and the No side seeing a £1 trillion asset as a problem not an advantage for Scotland.

So: the consensus is Salmond won. But what exactly did he win? There isn't much evidence to suggest TV debates change people's minds (remember the Nick Clegg everyone wanted to agree with in the debates in the run-up to the 2010 UK election? His party flatlined in the vote and lost seats).

What they might do more is boost - or erode - morale among activists. Darling gave Better Together a boost in morale, but not the opinion polls, after the first debate. We can expect Salmond's much improved performance this time around to be a fillip to the Yes campaign.

What the debate perhaps also showed was the agenda the two sides are likely to pursue in three weeks or so left till 18 September. The Yes side will major on the linked themes of 'saving' the NHS, social justice, and the Conservative Party as all-purpose bogeyman. Expect also a more focused line on the - from the Yes perspective - modesty of the extra powers offered by the No side if Scotland votes No.

And expect more from the No side on the risks of relying on oil revenues to finance public spending in an independent Scotland. And expect more of the same on currency in the quest for that elusive Plan B. But did we see in the irritable audience response in Glasgow that this is now an issue with diminishing returns?
 

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