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John Curtice: Debate that neglected the undecided

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, broadcast journalist Bernard Ponsonby and Alistair Darling before the TV debate. Picture: PA

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, broadcast journalist Bernard Ponsonby and Alistair Darling before the TV debate. Picture: PA

The supposed aim of the leaders’ debate was to provide undecided voters with an opportunity to hear the arguments of the two sides tested against each other.

But what they got was a gladiatorial contest partisans could cheer but probably left most undecided voters cold.

There was always a risk that this is what would happen.

The format encouraged the two leaders either to argue with each other or else to hold a conversation with the audience.

Rarely did either of them direct their words to the camera, and thus the audience at home. But matters were made worse by the subject matter on which the two leaders opted to lead.

Mr Salmond railed against Scotland being governed by a Conservative government for which it did not vote. He attacked the No side’s alleged “Project Fear” tactics.

Meanwhile, Mr Darling spent nearly all of his opportunity to quiz the First Minister conducting an inquisition about his plans for Scotland’s currency.

Trouble is, these are subjects that concern each side’s partisans much more than they do the uncommitted whose votes need to be won over.

What was missing was much in the way of a discussion on the subject that is known to be central to most voters’ concerns, that is which option would be best able to deliver a stronger, more prosperous economy?

Still, the event did have its surprises. Mr Darling certainly did not bore for Britain. He was animated, and managed far more words per minute than the First Minister. However, on occasion this might have come across as nervousness rather than a man in command of his material.

In contrast, the First Minister seemed to take a while to get into his stride and take the opportunity to lay out his vision for independence. He seemed more concerned with attacking Mr Darling’s personal record. Only towards the end of the night when responding to questions from the audience did his vision begin to emerge.

He certainly did not dominate the occasion in the way some had anticipated. Indeed an instant ICM poll for the Guardian scored it 56 per cent for Mr Darling and 44 per cent for Mr Salmond.

There is, in truth, probably a tinge of disappointment in the Yes camp this morning at an opportunity seemingly missed.

• John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University

 

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