Salmond is expected to win the debate, but will beating Darling swing the vote to Yes, asks Tom Peterkin
LIKE prizefighters limbering up for the biggest bout of their lives, the two main protagonists in the battle for Scotland’s political future have been in strict training.
In the run-up to what has been billed as the most important piece of televised political theatre in Scotland’s history, Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling have been polishing their soundbites, honing arguments and rehearsing ad-libs.
Tuesday night will see the first televised debate between the figureheads of the Yes and No campaigns – an event with the potential to make a huge impact on the outcome of next month’s referendum.
Behind the scenes, both politicians have been undergoing intensive sessions with their advisers, marshalling their arguments, attempting to pre-empt pitfalls and studying ways to out-manoeuvre their opponents.
For Salmond, his rehearsals have included taking on people playing the role of Darling. His coterie includes “happiness” guru Claire Howell, a Nottingham-based life coach who has been credited with getting the SNP to ditch Braveheart rhetoric in favour of warm optimism. According to Better Together strategists, Darling’s preparations have been “more low key, but meticulous”.
With Yes Scotland still trailing in the polls, Salmond’s strategists are viewing the STV debate – and the BBC one that will follow – as a huge opportunity to cut into the No campaign’s lead.
As the opener, STV’s event at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow has the potential to define the six weeks of feverish campaigning that will begin the moment the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony finishes tonight.
Salmond is relishing the confrontation with the former Labour chancellor. Never one to downplay his political abilities, Salmond has claimed that Darling would have the “heebie jeebies” at the thought of going head to head with him.
His optimism is reflected among his supporters, with the excitable SNP MP Pete Wishart claiming the “slaughter will be worse than the Bannockburn re-enactment”.
The hype surrounding Salmond’s debating abilities may be marked by the sort of hyperbole favoured by the Tartan Army, but beneath that there is a clear expectation from his supporters that the First Minister’s gift for memorable phraseology, his rhetorical flourishes and his positive message will win him the day.
The real challenge for Salmond, however, lies beyond being judged the better debater. His victory has to be so comprehensive and his arguments so compelling that he manages to persuade significant numbers of people to come over to Yes.
He will have two hours to do that, during the contest moderated by the veteran political broadcaster Bernard Ponsonby. Both men will make opening and closing statements (a coin toss has determined that Salmond will go first). In between, they will face questions from Ponsonby and members of the studio audience.
According to his advisers, Salmond is more than capable of convincing wavering voters and this debate represents a major chance to do so in front of a nationwide audience.
“Overwhelmingly, the evidence shows that when people are in a debate situation and the arguments from either side are put to them, they tend to break towards a Yes vote – whether that’s from No to Yes or undecided to Yes,” said a source close to the First Minister.
“That gives us great encouragement that when people – both the audience on the night and, in particular, the huge numbers of people watching at home – hear the arguments put, there is all to play for in securing the Yes vote.”
But there will be other factors in play – not least the personality of Salmond himself. Supporters regard Salmond as a brilliant communicator, but for others he is a divisive figure.
Yes Scotland has tried to overcome that by moving the argument away from the SNP leader – making the strong, and entirely correct, argument that independence is not about an individual but about the future of a country. An example of that approach has been the recent focus on its argument that only a Yes vote can save the NHS from Conservative privatisation.
But having a presidential-style television debate where the Yes and No sides are personified by Salmond and Darling puts the First Minister back at the heart of the independence argument. “The debate might be based around the issues we have to contend with in deciding our constitutional future, but it will have the feel of a contest between leaders,” said Dr Michael Higgins, a Strathclyde University academic who specialises in the personalisation of politics.
“As a clash of senior politicians, the debates won’t help the Yes campaign’s key message that a vote for independence is not a vote for the SNP or Alex Salmond.”
Higgins is one of the many who believe that Salmond will win the debate. But he acknowledges that winning in itself will not be enough.
“It is difficult to anticipate anything other than a Salmond victory. From the perspective of one that studies politics in media, Salmond is a conspicuously brilliant performer and rhetorician. But that is not to say that Salmond will benefit from the debate,” said Higgins.
“Views on Salmond tend to be extreme and entrenched. While many will cheer Salmond to the rafters, to others his skills in debate will be seen as yet further evidence to damn him.”
So Salmond’s like-him-or-loathe-him Marmite personality can be seen as both an advantage and a disadvantage to the Yes campaign.
But what of these claims that his victory is a foregone conclusion? Salmond’s political instincts may be sharp, but he is not immune to gaffes. His description of Nato intervention in Kosovo as “unpardonable folly” haunts him to this day. More recently, the qualified admiration he expressed for Vladimir Putin landed him in hot water.
There is also the possibility of a hot issue hijacking the event. Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is due to make a statement to parliament on the controversial issue of arming police just hours before the debate starts.
With members of the public at Yes meetings raising concerns about officers carrying weapons, it is almost certain that Better Together will attempt to capitalise on this.
Moreover, his opponent is a pretty canny operator himself – although it is difficult to imagine two more contrasting characters than Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling. Even Darling’s closest friends will admit that the Better Together leader is no match for Salmond when it comes to charismatic public performances. They will also admit that he lacks the debating experience of Salmond, who is used to being front and centre during Scotland’s constitutional journey.
“He is a serious politician. He won’t be going for quick headlines, he will be wanting to impress on the Scottish electorate just what a serious decision it is,” said one of Darling’s friends last night.
There are unlikely to be any gimmicks, memorable soundbites will be kept to a minimum and doubtless there will be a few “ah ums” and “erms”.
But Darling exudes calm and common sense: two qualities that were much admired when he led the Treasury through the financial crisis of 2008.
Indeed, Darling’s matter-of-fact description of how cash machines were two hours away from running out of money has been an effective rhetorical tool when arguing that it was a strong UK which was able to bail out the banks.
Better Together’s analysis of previous Salmond performances has pinned down two clear aspects of the First Minister’s personality that their man has to deal with. The first is characterised as “boisterous and bullying”, which it believes is effective at winning arguments at First Minister’s Questions.
Better Together’s belief, however, is that it will not be so effective when it comes to persuading the female vote watching the debate at home.
The other Salmond it believes could turn up on Tuesday is the softly spoken “reasonable” politician. “We are relaxed about that because we believe that, when it comes to the facts, we have the advantage,” one strategist said.
Darling may also benefit from the relatively modest expectations. It does him no harm to be the underdog.
As far as Salmond is concerned, the former chancellor is not even the top dog. As the First Minister has made abundantly clear, he believes he should be debating with David Cameron – as First Minister to the Prime Minister leading the Westminster government that is determined to keep Scotland within the Union.
Salmond’s repeated calls for Cameron to come north to defend the United Kingdom have been ignored by Downing Street on the basis that, as an English resident, he does not have a referendum vote.
Salmond’s anger over Cameron’s refusal to take part has been a key feature of an often tortured build-up, which has seen much argument about dates and times.
Eventually, the inevitable happened and both sides reached an agreement with STV. Talks with the BBC are ongoing, but two dates have been pencilled in for another encounter as well as a possible meeting on Channel 4 later this month.
Only time will tell whether these events will come to be regarded as defining moments where the referendum was won or lost. Some TV debates – such as the famous Richard Nixon/John F Kennedy one of 1960 – have played a crucial role in the future of a country. Plenty more have been inconsequential. On other occasions, some individuals have profited – for example, the brief Nick Clegg bounce after the first TV debate in the 2010 general election.
Others have faltered, like Barack Obama, whose unconvincing performance in 2012 against Mitt Romney turned what should have been an easy stroll to the White House into a tough battle for the presidency.
In this case, one feels that something dramatic would have to happen for Salmond to turn these televised spectacles into a game-changer.
“It has not proved that easy to move the polls,” said John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University. “The Yes side moved it a bit. But, overall, the polls have suggested a fair bit of stability in public opinion. So can it be shifted? If anybody is going to shift it, then Salmond must be the favourite. But, equally, we have to remember that the task is asymmetrical. All Darling has to do is play a straight bat and make sure he doesn’t lose. Salmond needs to win.
“Salmond needs to win in a way that not just persuades the cognescenti – and I am sure social media will judge that Salmond won, because we know that cybernats are much more active – but in such a way that people are persuaded that independence is a good idea.”
For Salmond, there is a huge amount riding on the next few days. Or as Curtice put it: “If the polls don’t move after this, what card does the Yes side have left to play?”