A referendum debate that showed us at our best

STV’s Tuesday night town hall debate came down to a tie — a multicoloured disco-sticks number sported by moderator Bernard Ponsonby.

The broadcaster is respected for his inscrutable neutrality and the distinctive neckwear was the one bold expression he allowed himself.

Of course a tie is just a tie — though it’s good to see Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat being put to good use — but there was a subtle symbolism: This was Bernard’s debate and he was going to soak up every minute of it.

I have been working as a journalist for seven years; I am a mere infant in this business. But I can say with the arrogant honesty of youth that Bernard is the finest broadcaster I have ever had the honour of working with.

He is certainly the most accomplished political broadcaster in Scotland and perhaps even further afield, marrying policy heft and ruthless charm to dazzling, devastating effect. Part Robin Day, part Donald MacCormick, all Bernard.

It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that the STV political editor should have fronted the most civilised, elevating, and engaging debate of the long referendum campaign.

He was aided by a deftly crafted format that encouraged considered responses more than political point-scoring. No gladiatorial contest here; in place of volume there was substance.

Three representatives of Yes Scotland — Nicola Sturgeon, Patrick Harvie, and Elaine C Smith — and three from Better Together — Douglas Alexander, Ruth Davidson, and Kezia Dugdale — were asked to marshal their best arguments on the economy, social justice, and foreign affairs.

The triumvirate of Unionist politicians stepped onto the stage against the backdrop of a YouGov poll putting the No vote ahead by just six points. If that figure had put the frighteners on them, they did not show it.

Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, was calm, plausible, and at several points had Nicola Sturgeon on the ropes over currency and the redistributionist potential of the Union.

Kezia Dugdale, the party’s shadow education secretary in the Scottish Parliament, will have been a new face to many viewers. She started nervously and talked too quickly but finally got into her stride with a sustained assault on the SNP’s ideological left-right acrobatics on policies like college places and the living wage. Expect to see more of her in the final two weeks of the campaign and in the Scottish Labour Party in the years to come.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson stumbled when grilled on Trident — she made the military rather than economic case for the nuclear deterrent — but recovered with some very moving words about the UK’s armed forces and sharp answers on the question of an independent Scotland’s relationship with the European Union. Where she excelled, though, was in a pitch-perfect closing statement. Here was a Tory politician speaking passionately and patriotically about Scotland, one prepared to serve her country whatever the outcome a fortnight from now.

The Scottish Conservatives still have a steep hill to scale if they are to win back Middle Scotland but after last night there might be more than a few people willing to listen to the Tories for the first time in years — or ever.

The SNP’s champion debater, deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, put in a solid performance by turning down the volume after the first few questions. She had prepared for a knife fight but found herself in the middle of a much more measured conversation. With this initial wobble behind her, she held her own against Douglas Alexander, if not trouncing him as comprehensively as she has almost every other Unionist politician unfortunate enough to find themselves opposite her in a debate.

Kezia Dugdale was the star of the programme but Sturgeon commanded the stage with confidence and authority. She will make a strong First Minister when her time comes.

The other Yes speakers were a mixed bag. As expected, Elaine C Smith took the populist route that is always the safest for a non-politician in these situations. This paid off in places; her stark quotation of life expectancy statistics for Glasgow was the most arresting moment of the night. Yes voters were certainly roused by her but I’m not convinced that undecideds will have see it that way. For every voter with whom her folksy bromides connected, there will have been another who found her “och aye” platitudes inane and her evasiveness on corporation tax disingenuous. You can play the politician or the punter but you can’t play both.

The infuriatingly likeable Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Greens, was affable but veered too far to the left for some of the audience. His principled denunciations of nuclear weapons and militarism were heartfelt but predictable, nothing you hadn’t heard before through a megaphone outside Tesco on a Saturday afternoon. Trident was “psychopathic” and yet more children were set to be “slaughtered” by it, an image thrown around with unseemly regulatory by sincere if excitable unilateralists. Harvie is a nuanced thinker who sometimes allows his positions to be caricatured by his own rhetoric.

Striking above all else was the calibre of the audience. Informed and insightful, this was a politicised populace holding its leaders to account. Hands shot up throughout the programme to enquire about the Barnett Formula, local government funding, and Sir Ian Wood’s oil revenue projections. Even the most cynical political journalist could not fail to be impressed by this level of engagement in the democratic process. The greatest threat to governments and the vested interests who exert influence over them is an informed and active citizenry. However the votes fall on September 18, it is hard to see how this wellspring of social awareness can be put back in the box.

Absent from this debate, as from all the others, is any indication that either side recognises and is prepared to address the crisis in public finances, the fiscal morass of debt, or the affordability of pensions with an ageing population. These are questions which can be dodged but not evaded and their omission is a disservice to an otherwise vital and comprehensive national conversation.

That is a point that can be returned to in the coming days. For now, we should congratulate ourselves and, yes, even some of our politicians, on the quality and substance of Scotland’s great debate.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © flash.pro by Creative Commons 2.0.

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