Against complacency and despondency after referendum debate

Pitfalls of media groupthink, example no. 486.

Going into STV’s live referendum debate, most journalists and commentators – this observer included – expected a clear victory for Alex Salmond.

If Alistair Darling could hope for anything, it would be a close fight or a draw.

Mr Salmond was a warm, engaging populist who never let nuance get in the way of a nice bit of demagoguery. Mr Darling, meanwhile, was a bit standoffish, somewhat robotic, and would struggle to connect with the audience.

However, Mr Darling had one big gun and he fired it. Repeatedly. The First Minister’s insistence that an independent Scotland would share a currency with the rest of the UK, despite the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats all ruling it out, has long been perceived by the No campaign as his greatest weakness.

Who better than a former Chancellor of the Exchequer to grill the SNP leader on his Plan B if a currency union proved to be a non-starter.

Darling went in hard on sterling and never really let up. Yes, Mr Salmond wanted a currency union but what if, as the Unionist parties insist, he couldn’t get one? What was his back-up plan? His fiscal commission working group had laid out a series of options. Which did he prefer?

The First Minister stuck to his line, insisting there would be a currency union.

“We will keep the pound Alistair because it is our pound as well as England’s pound,” he maintained. “It’s logical and desirable to have a currency union because England is Scotland’s biggest export market and Scotland is England’s second biggest export market. This is Scotland’s pound, it doesn’t belong to George Osborne, it doesn’t belong to you; it’s been built up by the people of Scotland over a long period of time.”

But Mr Darling kept jabbing away with the same question: What was Plan B and when would it be revealed to the public? In doing so, he turned himself into the voice of the voters, demanding answers on their behalf. Few could have expected him to pull off such an unlikely feat going into the debate.

And then he came to his most effective line and also the line of the night: “Any eight-year-old can tell you the flag of a country, the capital of a country and its currency. I presume the flag is the saltire, I assume our capital will still be Edinburgh, but you can’t tell us what currency we will have. What is an eight-year-old going to make of that?”

Things got worse for Mr Salmond when he chose to challenge the Better Together boss on some of the more outlandish claims about the downsides of independence, including which side of the road Scots would drive on, how vulnerable we would be to outer space threats, and what would happen to the Edinburgh Zoo pandas.

It was to be a self-inflicted wound because instead of painting the No campaign as a turbo-charged production line of scare stories, Mr Salmond’s questions made it seem like he was making light of the debate. Trite jibes are not the stuff of leaders, especially those asking a wary public to vote for an historic constitutional change.

Afterwards, Yes-inclined commentators managed only half-hearted defences of the First Minister, if they essayed them at all. Mr Salmond’s spin doctors persevered valiantly from behind ashen faces. The First Minister’s driving-alien-pandas stream of consciousness was “building up to something”, they insisted, which raises the unnerving possibility that only the constraints of time saved us from a soliloquy on EastEnders as a shared asset.

(If Mr Salmond really wanted to air his grievances about “Project Fear”, he might have gained more traction by interrogating claims that organ donations or a million jobs would be at risk after a Yes vote. Those charges, made by senior figures in the No campaign, could not have been so easily laughed off.)

This is not to say Mr Darling had things all his own way. The First Minister made handy work of the exchanges on Scotland’s EU membership after a Yes vote and left the Labour MP visibly rattled on the question of whether he believed an independent Scotland could be a success story. One audience member put him under pressure over Scotland’s contributions to the UK kitty and how much we get back out.

Unfortunately, this was overshadowed by another audience member who demanded sharply if Mr Darling, MP for Edinburgh South West, had an address in Scotland. He explained that he did but the subtext of the query was hardly indiscernible and its innuendo left an unpleasant aftertaste.

All the same, while the Unionist figurehead’s handlers deserve credit for preparing their man to exceed the expectations of the commentariat so audaciously, they might want to reflect on the tone of his contributions to the programme. Here, once again, was Alistair Darling as Mr No: Naw ye cannae, naw ye shouldnae, naw ye wullnae.

No Thanks continues to struggle with the vision thing. It’s too late to fix that now and they will have to hope they can get by without it. The polls are still to their advantage, a fact for which the Better Together campaign does not get enough credit. Maintaining a consistent poll lead with a popular First Minister on the other side and a despised Prime Minister on yours is no small potatoes. Complacency, however, is a very real danger and their efforts have to narrow now to solidifying their poll standing and preparing their get-out-the-vote operation.

A snap poll conducted by ICM for The Guardian saw 56% of voters declaring Mr Darling the winner against 44% for Mr Salmond. Wings over Scotland makes some worthwhile points about the responses from undecided voters but the samples are so tiny in these categories that it’s hard to extract much in the way of useful information. It is also fair to note that the split in opinion roughly reflects the division over the referendum question itself, so embedded voting intentions could have determined people’s responses.

Only a fool would begin writing Alex Salmond’s political obituary. As even the First Minister’s most vehement opponents will admit in private, he is the most skilled and capable Scottish politician of his generation. He has a personal touch that appeals to voters who hold every other politician on the scene in contempt. His inner circle is home to some of the canniest political strategists anywhere in the UK. Expect him to come back in the next debate, and come back hard.

There is a salutary lesson here for the pro-independence movement. Yes campaigners rightly berate the media for emphasising Alex Salmond’s role in the constitutional debate. An outsider might be forgiven for wondering if the ballot paper on September 18 will ask, “Do you want Alex Salmond to be King of Scotland forever and ever and ever?” Yes activists, even those affiliated to the SNP, have stressed that the campaign is about much more than one man.

It would seem that some have given in to the very temptation they warned against, elevating the First Minister to Yes-campaigner-in-chief. And, after putting their faith in Mr Salmond, he appears not to have delivered. This can be cause for despondency and bitter infighting. Or it can serve as a wake-up call to supporters of independence. They can gripe on Twitter about the First Minister’s failings or the wicked ways of the mainstream media, or they can redouble their efforts.

Alex Salmond was never going to win this referendum on his own. It was always going to take an entire movement to bring the public around to the idea of leaving the UK. One thing Yes Scotland is not wanting for is activists. It boasts an army of volunteers who chap doors, hand out leaflets, attend public meetings, and spread the word to family and friends. The polls are not yet where the Yes side needs them to be but if they remain that way on referendum day, those who surrendered into a dejected funk with six weeks to go will have no grounds to blame Alex Salmond for the result.

Overall, the most illuminating moments of the programme were the audience interactions. After two years of questions and answers mediated almost exclusively by journalists, the middle man stepped aside for the bulk of STV’s referendum showdown. The audience, composed of Yes, No, and undecided voters, put their questions to the First Minister and the leader of the No Thanks campaign.

And they were impressive. The local-addresses-for-local-people questioner aside, STV’s cross-section of voters acquitted themselves with grace and intelligence, reminding those who often forget that ordinary voters can have more acute insights into social and political issues than the professional political and media classes.

The next debate is tentatively scheduled for August 25 and will be broadcast by BBC Scotland. It is an opportunity for Mr Salmond to redeem himself or Mr Darling to shine again. But with any luck the format will mirror STV’s in putting the voters in the driving seat of this debate where they belong.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Financial Times by Creative Commons 2.0.

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