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.
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:
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.
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.
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