Just what the No side wanted – a nil-nil debate

I watched as much of the televised/streamed debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling as possible given the STV Player‘s own independence struggles.

Here are some impressions I took from the evening:

1. The format of the debate did not serve to enlighten the public. Candidates were allowed to “cross-examine” each other but as Mr Darling, a lawyer, would have been well aware, this is impossible to do forensically in such a short time. He shouted a bit, which looked bad, while Mr Salmond asked about aliens, which was odd. It reminded me at times of a fervent night in an Edinburgh pub. The questions from the audience were smart (see below) but there were too many of them. The candidates were not able to answer them in full, through no fault of their own. Little wonder that there was quite a lot of disillusion from Yes voters on social media who see independence as a vehicle for a new politics.

2. The questions that the studio audience asked were practical and specific – what would happen to the pound? Would the “triple-lock pension” continue in an independent Scotland? What would happen to national insurance contributions? What about free prescriptions? Free tuition fees? All of which served as a reminder that Scots, being human, like free stuff, and that the perceptions of the economic consequences of independence loom large in their minds ahead of the vote.

3. Mr Salmond was best when he was positive. His best line on policy was a passionate call for open immigration so that more new Scots can stay in Scotland. His most effective political line came right at the end, when he gave the third of his three main reasons for independence. (The other two being that you get the government you vote for and that Scotland is rich enough to do just fine.) He said that no-one will govern Scotland better than Scots; ambition is stronger than fear. The argument for independence by its very nature involves risk and Mr Salmond sounds most convincing when he stares it down and asks Scots to take a gamble.

4. Mr Darling was best when he was negative. It is the No campaign, after all. (Those who complain that he didn’t present an optimistic case for union have a point but it is a weak one.) Mr Salmond had no convincing answer to whether there was a Plan B on a currency union. The former chancellor’s argument about Scotland not being able to have an oil fund and lots of public spending was well made. It helps Mr Darling that people are loss-averse. It also helps him that challenging assumptions, questioning assertions and probing inaccuracies are in his nature. He does not do the vision thing well – but he does the derision thing nicely.

But most importantly, it helps Mr Darling that the evidence is on his side and that the Yes campaign has been more disingenuous than its opponents in the debate. As Mr Darling put it, there is too much “guess work, blind faith and crossed fingers”.

5. Points 1-4 could apply to any aspect of the referendum campaign, not just the debate on Tuesday night. Scots feel overwhelmed or confused or misled or a combination of all three. We knew already that economic issues are vital for undecideds. I don’t think we needed tonight to learn that Mr Darling can be a stickler for facts and that Mr Salmond is more engaging when he is on the front foot and not the back one. After the debate a Guardian/ICM snap poll had Mr Darling “winning” by 56-44, which is about where the average of polls have been this year. As you were, gents.

6. Indeed, to this disenfranchised expatriate it all felt rather familiar, nostalgic even. Here were two decent men, both with good arguments to make about the future of Scotland, arguing over the fine details of social democracy. It was like being back home. I think this can be explained by one simple fact that seemed apparent from Mr Salmond’s shifty body language and his reluctance to make eye contact with Mr Darling – his desired opponent, David Cameron, was not there. I suspect the PM will be very happy that he was not. For so long as the No campaign is ahead in a two-team league, a nil-nil result is almost as good as a victory.