Scottish election 2021: What did the first BBC TV leaders' debate tell us and who won?

It’s been said countless times already, but it bears repeating – this year’s Holyrood elections are like no other thanks to the restrictions in place as a result of Covid.

Candidates, and in particular party leaders, are not able to criss-cross the country visiting community centres, food banks, old folks’ homes, or even lobster shacks, and there’ll be fewer – if any – door knocks from the loyal party troops.

So the televised leaders’ debates have suddenly taken on an even greater importance than in normal elections as they are potentially the only place the public can hear the politicians’ promises, straight from the horse’s mouth.

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It’s hard to believe these television moments have only been part of the broadcasters’ schedules in the UK for the past decade or so, always dismissed previously as being “too American”.

The BBC leaders' debate.

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Scotland Election 2021: Nicola Sturgeon under pressure on independence referendu...

That first one conducted via the small screen back in 2010 saw Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg go podium-to-podium. By the end, everyone said they agreed with Nick.

It led to a blink-and-you’d-miss-it burst of “Cleggmania”, but more lastingly a coalition government and the near-destruction of the Liberal Democrats at the next general election.

Which brings us to the BBC debate on Tuesday night. Who would be declared the winner? Who would mangle their sound bite? Who would the audience heckle or laugh at disdainfully?

Well there was no audience, no instant feedback. And without it, the five politicians were but poor players, strutting and fretting on the stage, but empty of sound and fury.

And so it came to pass. Covid this, independence that – it was a re-run of every First Minister’s Questions of the past few months, brightened momentarily by one audience member who obviously felt a rather lacklustre Nicola Sturgeon needed a hand, declaring the union-supporting party leaders were “imperialists”.

Shrugging it off, new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar raised the story of a grandmother who was being forced to travel to London for cancer treatment that had been refused in Glasgow.

It’s the kind of human interest story that sets the media hares running. Remember Jennifer’s Ear or the young lad sleeping on the Leeds hospital floor? Here was a 69-year-old unable to get the medical help she needed.

It was, they all agreed, “unacceptable”.

But it was when the 70 minutes were nearly over that the “moment” happened.

The at-home audience was shaken from somnambulance when Sarwar turned on Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, telling him to “grow up”.

The leaders had been asked to pledge to “swiftly tackle any abusive behaviour that takes place in your party’s name”, and while there were unequivocal affirmative answers around the podiums, Ross felt it was the perfect moment to raise the issue of why there was such “division” between Scots, pointing the finger at the independence referendum and accusing Scottish Labour of not understanding “the threat we’re facing”.

“That’s the nature of politics, we’re so divided – it all goes back to the distraction of the referendum,” he said.

Sarwar was having none of it. “Douglas, you know I don't support independence, that I don’t support a referendum,” he said. “Grow up.”

Not to be outdone Lorna Slater, Scottish Greens co-leader, when asked how politicians could raise the tone of the debate, said the problem was “too many old wealthy white men” making decisions. Luckily her party doesn’t have to rely on them for votes.

People like to view these debate in terms of winners and losers.

Undoubtedly Sarwar performed well, while Sturgeon, an old hand at such events, was nowhere near her best, appearing unsurprisingly tired.

Rennie felt barely present, Slater was at least a new face and unfortunately for Ross, it didn’t matter what else he said the rest of the evening, it’ll be his telling off that remains long in the memory and on social media.

The good news for him though is that despite the importance that is placed on such debates, viewing figures have shrunk over the years and appear to have no real impact on how voters cast their ballot. Ultimately they signify nothing.

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