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Debate Verdicts and Summaries

A debate judge's analysis of topical public debates

How to judge the Scottish Independence debate
(from 6th August 2014)
"I want big life-changing decisions to be made based on the contents or our leaders' arguments rather than the colour of their rosettes."

I've judged many debates in my time, dating back from my student days to as recently as the Sunday before last. So, I asked myself: how would I judge last night's Scottish Independence debate if it took place at a debating competition? Below, I've tried to do exactly that, analysing some of the key clashes between First Minister, Alex Salmond, and his opponent, Alastair Darling MP, and then explaining my verdict at the end.


Salmond: "one thing we can say with absolute certainty, when Scotland becomes independent then at every single election we'll get the government Scotland votes for - every time Scotland goes into a general election, we have the risk of having people we didn't vote for ruling over us. That has happened for more than half of my life. I want to change that and have the certainty of democracy in this country."

Darling: "I didn't vote for him (Salmond), but I'm stuck with him. I just accept that that's what happens in a democracy."

Salmond: "It wasn't a surprise to find out Alastair didn't vote for me. The point is, Alastair, a majority of people in Scotland did vote SNP at the last election and therefore we got an SNP government. The difficulty in a general election is that the majority of the people in Scotland vote against the Tory party - they have one MP, more Pandas in the zoo in Edinbourgh than Tory MPs in Scotland - but we still get a Tory government. That is what is undemocratic about the status quo."

Darling: "That's a nice line, but it's not a good answer. Most people believe we can get the best of both worlds. We have a government in Scotland and we are also part of a larger country..."


Actually, it's a perfectly good answer as there is a massive difference between an individual not getting the person they voted for and a nation not getting the party a majority of its people voted for. Prior to this exchange, Salmond did also add that as a result of this, the interests of the Scottish people have been harmed by policies drawn up in Westminster by governments the majority of Scots didn't elect. In other words, it is impossible for Scotland to solve any of these problems as long they remain a part of the UK. 

While there were plenty of things Alastair Darling could have said in reply to that, such as devolving more powers to the Scottish Government for example, the fact is he didn't and he needed to make an effort to engage with the First Minister's argument rather than just taking a cheap shot at him.

Currency Union:

Darling: "People want to know how much their money will buy; how much their savings are worth. You said you want a currency union if we vote for independence, which seems to me a bit like getting a divorce and keeping the same join bank account. If you do that, you've got to get agreement from the other side (the UK government in Westminster) who are saying no, so what is going to happen - what is plan B?

Salmond: "We'll keep the pound, Alastair, because it's our pound as well as England's pound. 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. So for these reasons, it's in the interests of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom to have a currency union. So we'll keep the pound because it's logical and desirable."

Darling: "What is your plan B if you don't get a currency union?”

Salmond: “This is Scotland’s pound. It doesn’t belong to George Osbourne. It doesn’t belong to you…I said it was logical and desirable for Scotland and the United Kingdom. I chose these words carefully because I was quoting you exactly from an interview with Newsnight Scotland from the 10th January 2013.”


Ronald Reagan once said: “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” It should be noted that if you’re refusing to answer the question and the audience is heckling you out of frustration, you’re also losing. This is the pattern this particular exchange followed as Salmond mocked Darling for apparently changing his position on currency union, the Euro, and for his performance as Chancellor of the Exchequer during the financial crisis.

What Salmond needed to do was show one of three things to be true:

  1. that the UK government was bluffing or would change its mind (which he took a stab at with his comment about export markets, but never really explained); OR
  2. that Scotland did not need currency union to remain economically prosperous; OR
  3. that even if currency union was denied to Scotland and even if the consequences of losing the pound would be severe, it would remain a necessary price to pay for independence.

Unfortunately, all he showed is that Mr Darling may have contradicted himself in a TV interview, which is meaningless as even if the former Chancellor did secretly support currency union, that wouldn’t make it a good idea.

A ‘successful’ Scotland:

Salmond: “Do you agree that Scotland could be a successful independent country?”

Darling: “I have never said Scotland can’t go it alone, but…small countries have to make sure they live within their means, they sometimes have difficult decisions they’re going to have to take. My argument about Scotland is simply this:…about 15% of Scotland’s tax revenues come from North Sea oil, we know they’re in long term decline, we know they are volatile. Last year alone, Scotland lost £4.5bn in revenues, which is more than we spend on the schools budget…(cut off by Salmond)

Salmond: “Let me just say you’ve said yes to the idea that Scotland could be a successful independent country…Even your partner in the ‘No’ campaign, David Cameron has said…it would be wrong to suggest that Scotland could not be another successful independent country. Do you agree with David Cameron on that?

Darling: “Small countries do have to make sure that they can balance the books (heckled by Salmond and the audience)…your own figures show we have a much bigger deficit at the time you want to have independence from the UK and that would mean some very difficult decisions, which you are not prepared to face up with.”

Salmond: “Do you agree with David Cameron or not?” (he repeats three times)

Darling: “Let me answer your question (now being loudly heckled by the audience) – the other thing about small countries….


You can probably guess this exchange didn’t end well. In fact, I had to cut the transcript there or it would have run on for three pages with Salmond asking the same question and Darling trying to talk about small countries.

Let’s not kid ourselves here, Alex Salmond’s sole objective in this exchange was to put Alastair Darling in an embarrassing tight spot, something he did very well. However, while this move may have delighted his supporters, it did nothing to help undecided voters make up their mind, mainly because we never got a definition of the word successful.

Definitions are important, they give us an objective term of reference against which we can measure the accuracy and consistency of competing arguments. Otherwise you just get two different sets of claims thrown at you with no way of testing them, which is when people start factoring in things that should be irrelevant such as the speakers’ looks or sense of humour. 

My advice to Alastair: next time you get a question like that, ask Alex Salmond how you’re meant to answer the question when no-one has said what successful means and then push him to give a concise definition, the same way you pushed him to explain his plan for currency union.

The verdict:

Obviously, there was more to this debate than just the three exchanges above. Nevertheless, if this were a debating competition, I would narrowly award victory to Alastair Darling. While Alex Salmond did successfully demonstrate that there are problems with Scotland's membership of the Union, he failed to prove that leaving the United Kingdom would be the BEST or ONLY way to deal with them, while Alastair Darling successfully exploited the uncertainty around the risks of leaving.

However, this is not a competition. It is not a game. This decision will affect real people's lives forever, which is the reason I felt moved to write this blog post. When the Scottish public goes to vote in September, when the UK (with or without Scotland) goes to vote in the general election in May 2015, and again in the EU referendum of 2017, I want those big life-changing decisions to be made based on (to paraphrase Martin Luther King) the contents or our leaders' arguments rather than the colour of their rosettes.

That's why I hope come September, the voters of Scotland will judge their leaders as if they were contestants in a debating competition - whatever the verdict.

Review of the Spectator Debate on Iraq and Syria: who won and why?
Make the effort to work with your team to provide a clear and consistent message and take the time to listen to and consider the merits of opposing opinions...
On the evening of October 22nd, the Spectator hosted a debate on UK foreign policy in the Middle East, the motion for which read: Iraq and Syria are lost causes - western intervention cannot help. A star studded panel, proposing the motion was Conservative MP John Redwood, journalist Nabila Ramdani, and Independent correspondent Patrick Cockburn. The opposition, meanwhile, comprised fomer Chief of the General Staff Lord General Dannatt, US Council of Foreign Relations fellowEd Husain, and contributing editor for the Spectator, Douglas Murray. Chairing the debate was media bigwig, Andrew Neil. In other words, this was a heavyweight debate.
A preliminary vote before the debate showed that while more of the 400+ audience agreed with the motion than disagreed, the vast majority were undecided. The final vote showed a massive swing against the motion with the opposition team of Dannat, Husain, and Murray getting over 200 votes with Redwood, Ramdani, and Cockburn receiving little over 100.
So, what happened? Where did the proposition team go wrong and why did the opposition team win with such a landslide? Below is an analysis from Tony Koutsoumbos, a professional debate trainer who has been judging debating tournaments for over ten years, which should answer both these questions and also explain what the proposition would have needed to do differently to win.
Where did the proposition team go wrong?
In short, the main problem with the proposition was that they couldn't decide on a central argument, which confused the audience. Nabila Ramdani made a passionate case for intervention to stop the onward march of Islamic State, but asserted that it had to come from Iran and Syria and not the United States. John Redwood and Patrick Cockburn, on the other hand, talked to us about why any form of military intervention was flawed and that only a political solution could end the violence, while outright contradicting Ramdani on the desirability of Syria and Iran dominating the region. John Redwood, clearly the most experienced debater on the panel, also made the rookie mistake of dismissing the audience's objections to his argument during the Q&A on the basis that he clearly felt he had done enough to prove he was right. If this debate had taken place before a panel of judges at a debating tournament, he may well have fared better, but engaging a live audience is an entirely different matter.
Why did the opposition team win so convincingly?
This was definitely a case of the proposition losing the debate as opposed to the opposition winning it. Nevertheless, they emerged triumphant simply because they effectively demolished the arguments presented to them. First, they made the case that local forces on the ground in Syria and especially Iraq were not equipped to deal with the threat from Islamic State, while regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia had not demonstrated any appetite for directly intervening themselves. Were they correct? This may well be debatable, but the fact remains that Nabila Ramdani failed to refute them, so to the average open minded audience member who was weighing up their decision based on the evidence provided to them on the night, it was clear which side was right. Second, they made clear that in the absence of western intervention, a massacre would ensue and that this was simply too big a human cost to pay for whatever political solution John Redwood may have had in mind. They were helped substantially by Chairman Andrew Neil and the audience who really pressed Redwood on this point and it was arguably his indifference to the notion of IS taking control of Baghdad and leaving a trail of blood in their wake that made up the minds of so many audience members.
What would the proposition have needed to do differently to win?
  • Define the motion clearly in language that everyone can understand - specifically how to classify a 'lost cause' and the meaning of the word intervention. On the night, their failure to do this cost them as Nabila Ramdani appeared to defining the lost cause as Syria and Iraq being in thrall to IS, while John Redwood was looking at the wider prospect of long term peace in the region. Similarly, while Ramdani distinguished between western military intervention (bad) and local military intervention (good), Redwood simply argued that political intervention was better than military intervention, which left them wide open to a counter argument from the opposition that useful political intervention, say in the form of diplomatic support, training, and election monitors etc, would be most effective coming from the West. Luckily for them, neither Dannatt, nor Husain or Murray picked up on this.
  • Agree on a central argument that all team members will defend - the opposition could have done a lot things better in this debate, but one thing you can't fault them on is the consistency of the central argument they all shared: that if we do not take action to stop Islamic State now, then no one else will, the consequences of which are simply unacceptable. However, I don't want to give them a free ride. Their insistence on bouncing from Lord Dannatt and Ed Husain simply re-telling the history of the Middle East to Douglas Murray advocating a foreign policy based on the "pursuit of vengeance" against the atrocities of radical Islam were off-putting to the point that I ended up abstaining in the final vote.
  • State your objectives right from the outset - up until Douglas Murray raised the question of the 'purpose' of western military intervention right at the end of the debate, not a single speaker had actually broached this vital issue. Make it clear from the beginning what your top priority is and what you would need to achieve this. For example, say the proposition team had decided to tell us that their top priority was preventing an attack on British soil from a group or individual radicalised in Syria or Iraq. If they had demonstrated that air strikes against IS targets in Iraq and Syria would make such an attack more likely, then they would have had the foundations of a case in favour of abandoning military action and a clear definition of the motion that the audience could easily understand and relate to.
  • Outline the different possible courses of action and assess their implications - following on from the last point, let's say that the proposition team had argued that air strikes made an attack on the UK more likely, their next job would be to look at the alternatives. So, does this mean that withdrawing from the region altogether will make us safer or that even more intervention is required. Lord Dannatt set the scene for such a debate by insisting that air strikes had to be supported by boots on the ground - even asserting, to the astonishment of Andrew Neil, that they should be British boots too. This would have been a great opportunity for John Redwood to analyse the consequences and viability of such a decision, especially in light of a complete lack of political support. Alas, they never really engaged with any of the opposition's arguments, sticking rigidly to their own, which is another reason why they lost.
On reflection, the audience made the right call. In all honesty, I had a different opinion in the immediate aftermath of the debate as I felt John Redwood - in spite of his many errors - had actually made the best arguments of the night. Indeed, I wandered if the audience, whose sense of humanity and compassion came through strongly in their questions and comments, had simply refused to listen to him because it was not what they wanted to hear. However, as I am all too often reminded in our own public debates here at Debating London, there is a difference between being right, which no one really has the authority to decide, and winning the argument, which is simply decided by a show of hands. Make the effort to work with your team to provide a clear and consistent message and take the time to listen to and consider the merits of opposing opinions, and you will be a step closer to victory.
I look forward to the Spectator's next debate in the spring of 2015 - hmm, I wander what will be the topic of debate then.
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