Lesley Riddoch: The double act that’s made for TV

Talking shop, the First Minister and the Prime Minister at the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement in October. Picture: Getty
Talking shop, the First Minister and the Prime Minister at the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement in October. Picture: Getty
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David Cameron’s determination to win hearts in Scotland makes a head-to-head debate all the more likely, writes Lesley Riddoch

SALMOND v Cameron – is it the ultimate independence debate or just a good ruse by the Yes campaign to make David Cameron look feart? Would a televised set-to produce dazzling wit, cutting put-downs and heartfelt exchanges between the two leaders or just a dismal anti-climax?

My wager is we’ll never know. I’d guess David Cameron would rather mispronounce the Ode to a Mouse until Doomesday than lock horns with Alex Salmond for one prime-time TV minute. Not because the Scottish leader would necessarily make mincemeat of him – as the first party leader to drop the script and autocue for a conference speech, Cameron is no slouch in the communications department. Nor because Posh Boy Cameron is necessarily box office poison north of the Border. Although the Conservative leader has never enjoyed a “Cameron bounce” here, he’s not quite “son of Maggie” either thanks to prior claims by Tony Blair. The ConDem government has indeed outdone Thatcher by shrinking the welfare state and dismantling the health service in England. But Cameron doesn’t look or sound like an intentional axe-man. He doesn’t say “there is no such thing as society” (of course neither quite did Mrs T), he doesn’t have her cut-glass accent and hasn’t presided over a war, Irish hunger strike deaths, the sale of national assets, the woeful privatisation of the energy and rail industries or the destruction of Britain’s manufacturing base. He hasn’t imposed an unpopular tax in Scotland first. Nor has he demanded above average spending cuts from Scotland as Thatcher was shown to have done in 1970s Cabinet papers released last week. Whatever Scotland has suffered, the north of England has been dealt with far more severely.

So why won’t we see a Cameron/Salmond TV showdown? Equal billing between the First and Prime Ministers would confer a legitimacy upon Salmond, the SNP and Scottish independence worth its weight in gold and boost the Yes campaign – almost irrespective of the debate’s actual outcome.

Scottish Labour strategy is to paint the referendum as an unpopular SNP obsession and an expensive irrelevance. That strategy would be blown away the minute David Cameron took to the stage. American political scientist James Overton claims political ideas move from being unthinkable to radical to acceptable to sensible and popular before finally becoming policy and mainstream. As commentator Alex Massie observes: “Scottish independence is currently somewhere between acceptable and sensible.” If Alex Salmond could force a reluctant Prime Minister to share the podium on TV, he could transform the progress of independence as a viable alternative to stagnation within the UK.

Indeed this weekend’s SNP-commissioned Panelbase poll discovered that a two-leader TV debate is overwhelmingly popular – on both sides of the Border.

In Scotland, 63 per cent approved (56 per cent in the rest of the UK), 25 per cent disapproved (24 per cent in rUK) and 11 per cent were undecided (19 per cent in rUK).

Support for a debate was highest among SNP voters at 79 per cent, but the majority of Labour and LibDem voters also backed it. Only Scottish Tory voters, with 54 per cent opposed, were against.

That’s what you call a decisive majority.

It’s also what you call clever. The poll results provided copy on a quiet post-festive Sunday so even anti-independence newspapers picked it up – “Cam’s boxed into a corner” said one – and it caused Cameron’s own New Year Scottish media offensive to misfire. After all if the Prime Minister does want to “win hearts” to clinch the referendum vote, how can he do that from 500 miles away? And yet if he heads north, makes speeches and becomes engaged, Salmond’s barb will only sink deeper into the Better Together campaign. Can a responsible leader dabble in the debate and withdraw when it suits him?

Cameron’s reluctance to “parlay” makes no sense to a Scottish electorate who’ve just witnessed two rather frisky jousts between Nicola Sturgeon and Alistair Carmichael, assuming they are warm-ups for the real thing. Alex Salmond has kept his powder dry with almost no TV debate performances for a year – a bit like the much-loved Stanley Baxter who appeared on TV only at Christmas. It’s a tried and tested strategy. But if Better Together is determined to field Alistair Darling not David Cameron, how long can the First Minister hold out?

Indefinitely I’d guess. Daring to think big and demand a top-flight debate will motivate Yes supporters to turn out and vote. Finding excuses not to engage will hardly encourage No voters. And this September, turnout will be king.

A Salmond v Cameron line-up also passes the main test of viability for any Scottish programme on the BBC Network – it appeals to Surrey man and woman. They may not have considered Scottish independence but they will have heard of the wily Scot, watched him punch above his weight on BBC Question Time and meanwhile become rather bored with the Groundhog Day quality of opposition at Westminster. The First Minister may provoke mixed reactions north of the Border but he is fairly popular south of it. Part of that is down to a Farage-like “cheeky chappie” popularity. But part is genuine status built over decades by the British press.

It’s easy to forget Salmond spent 23 years at Westminster (longer than Holyrood) relishing the cut and thrust of debate and providing colourful copy. Commons coverage is unduly obsessed with personalities, so it was inevitable the SNP’s stunning 2007 and 2011 victories would be attributed to just one person. Amongst London’s political columnists, Alex Salmond is seen as part Sherlock, part Merlin – a modern political wizard who can breathe life into any moribund cause.

So Scotland’s independence referendum appears to be a “huge political adventure [creating] an engagement in Scotland’s political future, utterly absent south of the border” – according to a sadly envious Henry Porter in the Observer. While Iain Martin in the Sunday Telegraph suggests David Cameron will be recast as “the skilful leader who remained calm when the Union was in danger” if he can beat Salmond in debate, and fiercely unionist Janet Daley concedes defeat won’t stop Alex Salmond – “he is a man who would survive the flood.”

In short Salmond’s “giant-killer” reputation has already been enhanced on both sides of the border simply by re-popping the question and animating the chattering classes.

Not bad for a weekend’s work.