Brian Monteith: TV debate a chance for Darling

Alistair Darling takes on Alex Salmond in a live TV debate on Tuesday. Picture: John Devlin
Alistair Darling takes on Alex Salmond in a live TV debate on Tuesday. Picture: John Devlin
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THE No campaign has beeen accused of negativity, so let the head-to-head show a different side, writes Brian Monteith

THANK goodness for the Commonwealth Games. After what seems like an interminable campaign – still with six weeks to run – the sporting festival in Glasgow gave us some much-needed respite from the referendum debate that has succumbed to a blizzard of unfounded conjecture, plain deceit, political bribery and little good humour.

It has been a blessing to see athletes of all nations competing to the best of their ability but in a friendly atmosphere some of our ice-cold name-calling politicians could learn from.

Much of the credit goes to the enthusiastic spectators, the locals that lined the streets and the organisers who have pulled it off with the help of thousands of volunteers. Like London 2012, it will stay in our memories for a long time and for good reasons, rather than bad or disappointing ones.

Today we come back down to reality as the referendum campaign gets back on the road with more briefings and counter-briefings, and tomorrow it has the potential to be set ablaze as Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling have the first of their three live television debates.

The majority of the pressure is on Salmond; it is his campaign that remains behind in the polls with the clock ticking down and appearing to get faster by the day. It is Salmond who has to exude positivity and not let slip one of his occasional clangers while landing a knockout blow.

I can’t imagine the First Minister would have it any other way, preferring to be cast as the outsider rather than the favourite.

If there is a weakness in Salmond’s debating style, it is his over-confidence that feeds into a bravado, which on the night can look smug and by the next day requires damage-limitation.

This is not a partisan point because I am a unionist; anyone observing some of his recent performances at First Minister’s Questions can’t but help notice he has become rather tetchy, has often resorted to repeating the same evasive answer and that even supporters on his own benches can start counting the spots on the carpet as they pretend they are not there. On those occasions, he is usually jousting without too much care for anyone other than his own back-benchers or the media pack that is normally just looking to see who trips up rather than witness an epoch-making put-down.

Even though FMQs is webcast, it certainly does not attract the audience numbers there will be tomorrow evening – and therein lies the challenge for Salmond, for on this occasion he cannot afford to be narrowly partisan. He has to win over doubters and vacillators – and playing it like a Punch and Judy show is bound to turn off everybody but loyal SNP supporters.

For Darling, the challenges are quite different. It has been said by the Better Together campaign that he only has to make sure he does not drop the ball, that a draw will suffice, but while that may be strictly true, I hope those comments are political shadow-boxing and the former chancellor of the exchequer is preparing to be rather more ambitious, if not audacious.

By the very nature of the unionist campaign and the fact that it is having to argue for a No vote in favour of the status quo, they have often allowed themselves to be portrayed as negative by raising unfounded fears.

That has generally been unfair, although at times they have only had themselves to blame by talking about what will be lost if Scotland leaves the United Kingdom rather than what it has gained by being in it.

Thus we hear how jobs will be lost in naval shipbuilding rather than the jobs that have in the past been gained on current contracts and the prospects for more work in the future.

There is a need to establish what such a revolutionary change in our constitutional, economic and social arrangements will mean – but getting the tone right has not always been Better Together’s strong point.

In its defence, while the Yes campaign is essentially the SNP campaign, there are three unionist parties and there will be a tendency for some of their politicians to just shoot from the hip without cross-party agreement.

Nevertheless, there remains a need for Darling to adopt a more positive manner in talking up the UK’s prospects and Scotland’s bright future at the heart of that.

By the same token, as Darling seeks to portray Scotland’s place in the UK as a positive advantage, he should not shirk from showing how the Yes campaign has consistently been negative – using euphemisms such as Westminster and London as a cypher for everything bad.

If the UK is as bad as Salmond and his supporters paint it, how is it that so many people from around the world wish to come to Great Britain and when they do it is London that so many choose?

Likewise, while he also has to sound confident about a Labour victory – a message that for most Scots is a positive one – he should not avoid reminding Alex Salmond that the coalition government does have more Scottish MPs than the SNP.

And it is in these subtle but well mannered put-downs that Darling can play a canny game, quietly reminding viewers that the First Minister does not have a monopoly on clever one-liners or political wisdom.

The SNP campaign has made many rash promises about how everything will be a bed of roses following independence – a Scotland where milk and honey production will become our prime industries. Not only do most of the promises fail to stack up – and Darling will know which ones – but the SNP appears unable to accept that anything might go wrong.

Independence will mean challenges, some people must lose their jobs and some services will be poorer. That is not to say it cannot work – but if Darling was to simply ask Salmond which promise he fears he will break first, the man of many broken political promises cannot surely claim he can keep them all?

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