The Great Debate. Salmond v Darling. Will it be equal and fair?

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by Kevin Williamson

It was no real surprise to hear that Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, will go head-to-head with former UK Chancellor, Alistair Darling, in a live 2 hour debate broadcast by STV on 5th August.  Unless you are David Cameron, terrified of scaring the natives, the lure of what promises to be the highest ever TV audience for a political debate in Scotland was always going to be hard to resist.

While most Scots will welcome this, especially if it helps undecided voters, STV’s recent track record in promoting enlightened head-to-head encounters leaves a lot to be desired.  The infamous “stairheid rammy” was a classic example of how not to do it.  How the debate is framed by STV producers will be crucial to its outcome.

On 18 September Scots will be asked to choose between two alternatives: a future as an Independent country or a future as part of the UK.  It is important to stress that not one but two counter narratives are being proposed here. Neither of these alternatives amounts to the status quo.

For a TV debate of this importance to be fair and meaningful it would need to spend an equal amount of airtime examining the two alternatives.  This means one hour on the possible outcomes of a NO vote for Scotland and one hour on the possible outcomes of a YES vote.  Anything less would be loaded and unfair to the other side.

This needs saying.  Loudly.  Because if previous head-to-head debates are anything to go by we may end up with a rigged debate, sprung on us by faceless STV executives, with two hours of debate on the ramifications of a YES vote but no serious examination of what lies in store for Scotland if the people vote NO.

We can second guess that Alex Salmond will want to use this event to showcase the economic and social possibilities for an Independent Scotland.  Alistair Darling, going by his tweets and comments, primarily sees this event as an opportunity for himself to cross-examine YES.  Maybe that’s just his background as a public school-educated lawyer kicking in, where he does all the questioning and the plebs are only there to explain themselves. This approach has to be a non-starter.

For a debate of this magnitude Alex Salmond must be given the same amount of airtime to cross-examine Darling on the economic and social prospects for the UK.  This means asking hard questions of the UK’s £1.5trillion national debt; the social and economic costs of continued austerity; where the money for Trident is coming from; what new laws and economic policies the UK intends to use to tackle inequality, poverty and low wages.

Another big question the NO campaign refuses to answer relates to their vague promises of “more powers”.  This can’t be given an easy ride.  Darling needs pressed on what these new tax-raising powers will be; what they wont be; how much in ££s they will affect the block grant determined by the Barnett Formula; how much more tax Scotland will have to collect just to stand still.

Darling needs to be pressed hard on what will happen to Scotland’s NHS, our education system, and our public services if they are starved of resources by a Westminster government committed to austerity and privatisation.

Darling needs to be quizzed on the consequences for Scotland of a new property price bubble in the South of England, and on the personal debt mountain that has mortgaged the future of tens of millions of UK citizens.  He also needs to be put on the spot about what happens to Scotland if another Tory government or Tory-LibDem coalition is elected. Or worse, a Tory-UKIP coalition arises in 2015.

These questions matter if people are to make an informed decision. This TV debate cannot be hijacked by Darling in a wrecking ball attempt to reduce the bandwidth of the referendum debate to the relative triviality of startup costs, plus circular assertions and counter-assertions about membership of the EU or currency.  There are no absolute answers to these.  Most folk know they will work themselves out through negotiation.

I’m not hopeful any of this will happen. To date, the mainstream media have shown little enthusiasm for framing the Independence debate as two competing narratives. I just hope, for the sake of honest and fair political debate, that Alex Salmond’s advisors lay down the law and demand both options are given an equally vigorous cross-examination.



Categories: Alex Salmond, Politics

Tags: , ,

61 replies

  1. Hi Kevin

    Remember the ‘Day of the Two Cabinets’ in Aberdeen earlier this year.

    Perhaps after Osbourne’s public snub after the ‘Sermon on the Pound’, Ponsonby got to interview Cameron.

    In that interview, Cameron made a very explicit commitment to return to Scotland before the vote to answer question from STV viewers before a studio audience.

    Now obviously, Salmond vs Cameron now ain’t gonna take place (unless Darling makes a complete ricket on August 5th).

    But is Cameron still committed to coming north to face the voters?

    • Cameron said he would be coming here. He didn’t actually say he would be “facing the voters”. He will be coming here for photo opportunities. He will be coming here to give well-rehearsed speeches to specially invited audiences, in front of TV cameras in secret locations. He will never face one single solitary yes voter and answer one single solitary question from them.

  2. I’m surprised Darling has actually agreed to do it. How on earth is he going to keep the blinking and flustered babbling under control short of dosing himself up to the eyeballs with drugs? The only hope he has is if the format does indeed force all the pressure onto Salmond. Even then, Colonel Blink remaining relaxed and composed for two whole hours? It’s just not happening.

    • you know, that was my first thought as well. If Salmond is pushed he will send Darling into space as his blinking will cause spontaneous combustion

    • And of course as we have heard before regards tv ‘debates’, they can manipulate to a certain extent, turning up the volume on some comments, down for others, turning up the lights on one speaker to make them sweat and appear nervous. A darling I hope will be minced by A Salmond. Ultimately though it is an insult not to have D cameron to answer crucial questions. Still, any exposure for Alex to have his say is better than non!

    • DD How on earth is he going to keep the blinking

      We need to raise our argument above the obvious.
      It’s a right-royal mismatch because Darling has not got any answers. He holds no power, no policies, and no plans. They are all in the control of Cameron, the 1922 Committee, and the City.

  3. The article is of course very right, we need assurance that this WILL be fair debate, the reason why I worry about it is why Darling took it at all?.

    He must have been pushed into by those in power ( do not worry Alistair, we will have you well versed and covered, you will get all the opportunities you require, we will make sure of that!)

    Otherwise he would know he is in for a public beating. Something like that above must have been said for him to enter this arena. I would just love to know what it is, yet I think despite all the knowledge they try and put in his head, he is not a debater.

    Certainly he has been kept out of debating with anyone, much like Brown. He publicly ( with Media consent ) says his bit, with little challenge, this will be very different. However, the training he will be getting from some of the best they have, after a reasonable showing, he will start stuttering and end up in melt down, no matter what help he gets he cannot help his nature.
    It is also interesting how a Labour MP defend Tory policy, that will be an eye opener.

    • Surely not! They have been doing it on a regular basis in the Scottish Parliament for months – and we should not let them ever forget it !

  4. Well, we’ve got the narrative of the PM of the UK not being willing to defend its benefits to Scotland in a straight debate, now we get one of Labour defending Tory policies.

    I know this may be controversial to ask, but in an important debate like this, will both participants have a team backing them up, providing relevent quotes and proof as needed by the debators? (Basically, saving them the time of leafing through notes to find exact quotes, have some people in the sidelines paying attention to hand them the quotes, or getting the clips up on a screen in the studio) It’s not exactly hard to give each of them a fish in their ear, and a big-screen TV hooked up to a computer, with the moderator having the remotes so they can’t flash up cheeky messages to destract the opposition (because I know if I was Salmond’s support in a format like that, I’d set up a way to flash “LIAR” on my screen in big red letters quickly and repeatedly).

    I can just imagine the effect of having a stock of clips of AD saying things in public, then saying something else in public, or that one of JL saying Scotland won’t be getting any more money, or of something from Milliband about chasing the Tory spending policies.

    Lets make it easy to get some hard facts into the debate, shall we? Then we don’t need to rely on assertations from flawed memories.

  5. It will be interesting to see how Darling justifies his stance on better an English elected Tory government in charge of Scotland’s affairs than any government elected by Scots.

  6. I don’t know why on earth Salmond has agreed to debate with an opposition backbencher who cannot “promise” anything as his party is not and is unlikely to be in Power. Anything Darling say’s is irrelevant as he is not in the Government of the UK.
    It also makes Salmond appear to be a small regional Party leader as opposed to the First Minister of a Nation.
    And no. It will definitely not be fair or unbiased.
    IMHO Salmond should only debate with Cameron. Darling is supposed to be the leader of the No Campaign.
    He should only debate with the leader of the Yes Campaign.
    Even then any Televised debate would still be very biased towards No.

    • Salmond’s political dealings have been with Cameron. So the pairing is asymmetrical. I suspect Darling is intended as the fall guy. Cameron v Salmond would be far to much of a risk for the former. Will it be available in England and Wales or condescendingly downgraded to the level of just a local spat? Carefully edited highlights only.

  7. For the past year I have been conducting an on-line debate with one of my old school-mates. He left at 15, went down the pit, qualified as an electrician, then, with an NUM scholarship, went to university and qualified as an electrical engineer.

    He went to a university in the Sudetenland and stayed there; using the money he made from a spell in Saudi to start his own IT company and is now, in retirement, a millionaire, living in some style in his house on the South Downs.

    He is firmly in the No camp, whereas I am in the Yes camp. We have had a civilised exchange of views and, while he shares my distaste for Westminster, I have been unable to shift him from his view that, on balance, we are better together. However, he doesn’t have a vote.

    Of late, however, he has began to put forward the view that – deep down, the Tories WANT us to go, but cannot be seen to say this.

    He assures me that in the circles in which he moves – the local rugby and golf clubs amd down the pub it’s a case of: “Nothing personal Jock old boy, but, we’d be a damned sight better off if we weren’t subsidising your fellow Sweaties. We’ll be sorry and all that, amd all the best, but, we’d rather you went”.

    So – Cameron cannot debate, he must not be seen, as the Tory who split-up the UK, and, he knows, the quickest way to get the Sweaties to vote Yes is for a Tory PM to go up there and lecture them.

    Thus, he has got a civilised but basically incompetent Jock to front the false: “Please, please, stay with us” campaign, but, will mess things up.

    Brown won’t do – too-many Sweaties still rate him, so, get the next one down the food chain – Darling.

    BT loses, Labour implodes, England votes Tpry for ever – job done.

    OIf course, there’s still the negotiating to be done, the £, Trident etc. Yes. they’ll miss the oil money, but, the long game has the Scots fighting among themselves and the City of London having to step back in and clean-up.

    • It’s an interesting question looking at the long game:

      I take teh attitude that you should always assume that your opponents are competant

      We all know that Scotland’s politicians make almost no difference to westminster elections or policies.

      So what do the tories want out of this? I think we can all agree that early on, they expected a quick referendum, that it would return a “no” vote, and they could go back to ignoring us for another decade.

      That hasn’t worked, so what’s the objective now? We shouldn’t assume that they’re stupid enough to believe that this campaign would have worked in the timeframe things are in (it stood a decent chance if the referendum had been a quick one, but not a long one), so thay have to have another objective.

      We know UKIP are only there to be a popular protest party, who can drive the public debate the way they want it. They might get into a coalition government with the Tories, but I doubt they would do that, it would probably end up destroying them the same way it did with the LibDems. They’ll be clever and not let UKIP get much in the commons, though Nige might get himself a lordship.

      I don’t think I believe that they actually want Scotland gone, we bring in too much money for them for that, but they might be willing to let us go if they get something else out of it, are they going to use this to damage the Labour Party more, or something else?

      They’ve certainly moved a *lot* of money around. But laundering money can’t be all that they’re using the referendum for.

      How could they use the referendum to destroy the Labour Party? They could put them in all the front spots, so the referendum is seen as their fight. Then it’s a Labour Party loss, and the tories can slap them with the blame.

      Or, after Scotland leaves, the tories could “suddenly” realise how much money Scotland brings in, and use that as an excuse to crank “austerity” even farther. Suddenly 60% of the cuts still to come will turn into 90% of the cuts still to come, and they get an excuse to sell themselves the rest of the state. Say hello to private police, private army, all roads being toll roads, paying for your education from nursary on up, more tax hikes for the poor and loopholes for the rich…

      That second one is probably worth losing Scotland’s income.

      • Sorry, I should have said that that second one is probably worth losing Scotlands income *to them personally*, not to the state.

    • Hi Socrates,

      The good folk in the rugby and golf clubs of the South Downs either know nothing (most likely, why should this be an area of expertise for them?) or are just winding up your friend (or, more likely, your friend winding up you) so that it looks like you lose either way!

      Of course, the opposite is the case – something made abundantly clear by their notion of “the City of London having to step back in to clean up the mess”! That is how they sell it isn’t it? Whereas we know full well it was us taxpayers being made to step in and bail out the City of London because of the complete mess they made and continue to make (meanwhile their wealth skyrockets as they use so called austerity to continue stealing from the rest of us).

    • I went to a public (private) school in Scotland but my presence there was 100% financially supported by an enlightened local government (Aberdeen Town Council). I lived in Mastrick, Aberdeen – we were all working poor in those days. All our neighbours and friends had jobs but little money.

      I became a doctor, but I now live in Canada. I didn’t leave because of money, but because of opportunity.

      I do not have a vote but I would implore any parent in Scotland to vote yes so that their kids might have the same educational opportunities as me.

    • Why do you feel it necessary to denigrate yourself and other Scots? I live half my life in SE England and half in Scotland and I have never heard the term “sweaties” used except by some Scots and ignorant English football supporters. And Jock nowadays used very rarely has always been used in a friendly fashion when directed at me.

  8. i would hope that alex salmond’s advisor’s will be shrewd enough and have savvy not to let the independence movement fall into any traps.but i think he must attack darlings pie in the sky vision of what scotland will be like if scotland loses the vote for independence, because make no mistake, if enough people fail scotland and vote no, it will be a devastating loss.

  9. Every time I see the claim that England as a sovereign state (or at least the Divided Kingdom without Scotland) will vote the Tories into office permanently, I can’t help but laugh. Does 1997 ring a bell to anybody? Bliar won so many seats in England that he had a majority in the Commons before a single vote was counted in Scotland or Wales. I assure you that Labour will win again in England, as we always vote out the government sooner or later.

    • I think you may be confusing people saying that the Tories will win a permenant majority in England with people saying that the Conservative Party will win a permenant majority in England.

    • New Labour = Same Old Tories. It doesn’t really matter which of the 3 parties is in power in Westminster. Their policies and mindset are interchangable. None of them has anything to offer the people of Scotland.

      • None of them has anything to offer the people of the Divided Kingdom’s other nations, either. Their concerns begin and end with the political class and their cronies in the major corporations and trade unions. Democracy? Let’s be realistic here.

  10. Whatever the gin sling suckers might be burbling to each other in their Surbiton strongholds….. one thing is clear, the Brit State will do everything in its power to hold on to our assets.

    Cameron and his City of London puppet masters know what our oil, fish, farming, nukes, and renewables mean to their heavily listing ‘economic recovery’.

    Their country needs us…the resources that is ,not the fat, stupid and incomprehensible cannon fodder inhabiting it. Another property bubble in the S.E. and a ‘No’ Vote..then they can continue Thatcher’s plan of settlement and colonising of our ancient land.

    Last of the Noheedyins if we ignore this chance to send them to Libcon oblivion.

  11. I think can also include in the list of things Project Fear will do to try and scupper the debate will be to collude with their BBC and newsprint media chums to invent a smear or alleged scandal that they can play for all it’s worth just before and during the debate.

  12. I’m not an SNP supporter but I have total confidence in Alex Salmond’s ability to best Darling in a debate. You’re right, Kevin, to raise concerns about the format but, again, I have confidence the Yes team will be all over that.

    Subsequent spin is more worrying, the MSM will not, cannot allow Salmond to win. At the very best they will pick up on a stumble or or odd facial expression, or using the word “we” to headline it with “His Royal Smugness” or some such. Also think there will be some distraction or other ready and waiting to take the front page – Prince George shits golden eggs or the like.

    Online, instantaneous responses will help, but the entire Yes campaign has to be primed to follow through. Let’s get geared up.

  13. “Neither of these alternatives amounts to the status quo.”

    Says who? The vote is whether or not the electorate wants Scotland to be independent. What happens to Scotland in the event of a No vote is not the business of this referendum but will be dealt with in the 2015 UK General Election. What those options are can be discussed and decided then and there is nothing to say the “status quo” cannot be one of those options.

    Be careful what you ask for. If you want to debate fully the post-referendum options, then you should be prepared to allow equal time for the SNP, Labour, Liberal, Greens and Conservative plans.

    • The LibDems are dead, Labour and Conservative have the same overall plans (with Labour chasing the Conservatives), so we really only need to hear the SNP, Conservatives and Greens/SSP to get all the options.

      Of course, in the event of a No vote, the only one of those with the power to enforce anything would be the Conservatives, and they’ve already declared that they’re going to destroy the status quo.

      So no, in reality, the status quo isn’t an option.

  14. There is time enough for Darling to get a note from his mammy excusing him.

  15. “For a debate of this magnitude Alex Salmond must be given the same amount of airtime to cross-examine Darling on the economic and social prospects for the UK.”

    Excellent points throughout your article Kevin.

    I think it would be fairer if it was made clear at the outset of the debate that Darling is speaking for the UK government. He is there to persuade and convince people living in Scotland to remain part of the Union. He cannot be allowed to get away with “I can only speak for the Labour Party”, or “what we in the Labour Party would really like to do”, … etc

    I fear Darling will be permitted a Get Out of Jail Free card every time he is confronted with a difficult question. He will effectively be there to promote his party’s manifesto (currently written in pencil of course) and unity for the 2015 General Election.

  16. The debate hasn’t happened yet. You’d think the terms of the debate would have been agreed, wouldn’t you? This will give wiggle room for a withdrawal as well..

  17. I presume the debate will be live. If people do not watch the live show, or the whole repeat on iplayer, they will have to rely on the biased unionist reports in the newspapers and Tv news programmes.

  18. Alex Salmond is there to convince people to vote for a sovereign Scottish parliament. Alistair Darling is there to persuade people not to by convincing them that Westminster should be the only sovereign parliament.

    The debate will move onto which parliament is best placed to react to people’s needs, concerns and aspirations.

    I’m just thinking that Alistair Darling, as a backbench MP, is simply not in a position to talk about his side of the debate (which also must take into account 55+ million people living outside of Scotland). He has too many escape clauses. The debate will surely have to have clear boundaries explained to the viewer.

  19. Surely we can presume Salmond will stipulate thst his participation is based on a cleasr set of rules of engagement – including a truly neutral and competent moderator. Based on previous debate attempts by STV they cannot be left to their own devices? If Eck hasn’t already thought of all of this we don’t deserve to win?

  20. Reblogged this on Are We Really Better Together? and commented:
    I couldn’t agree with this more.

  21. The snarling Darling playbook is easy to predict:smears,fears and uncertainty.
    The FM should praise and offer hope and assurance-stand in contrast to the angry wee fearmonger and tell Scotland to reject the narrative of too wee,too poor.

  22. There’s some very sound advice in Kevin’s piece here. We’re being given the choice of two futures so let’s examine them. We all need to keep repeating this and make sure we are reaching STV and Bernard Ponsonby.

  23. The sums of the the Union,brokerd by a almost bankrupt Scotland,are left in a heavy profit English domain.Military (and that is their main drive)still profit is not to be forgotton.Make no mistake if England,where to lose one third of its home empire it will hurt not ony military but also presteige on the world stage.Today they let us rule semi,go to the head and get the check for this term,a law that their present rulers did not allow,and a law that they detest.

    The sums that our union gives us, after asking the Head,leaves our governance the same rule as the slums that our brains where brought up in.

  24. May I suggest a petition to STV on the lines of your article emphasising,,,…
    “For a TV debate of this importance to be fair and meaningful it would need to spend an equal amount of airtime examining the two alternatives. This means one hour on the possible outcomes of a NO vote for Scotland and one hour on the possible outcomes of a YES vote. Anything less would be loaded and unfair to the other side.”
    Maybe via change.org or 38 Degrees(they are hot on voting and and I am using their package to get people to register for voting)

    • Mark, this supports my comment above. Folk need to get behind a petition on these lines. That would then give the debate a chance of getting to the crux of the issues.

  25. I see Alex Salmond’s agreement to have this debate as a chance for him to launch the REAL campaign in the final few weeks. I cannot but wonder at you Kevin and most of the posters above. Do you really think AS is so incompetent as to not be aware of the pitfalls in entering this debate and to take steps to ensure they are nullified? FFS, AS himself is the most competent politician on these Islands AND he has a room full of advisors so if he (they) allows himself to be sandbagged he would deserve to lose the Referendum.

    • Well said James C.

      Where has that fine courage gone folks. The comments here make a good point but already the fear factor is pumped up a notch regarding the “big debate. Your entitled to opinions and it’s only fair to feel thus.The MSM have been a joke .

      A. Salmond has hardly started yet. The debate will show what a mess the BT/NT mob are. Mr. salmond is at his best speaking. He is by far the best politician out there and A.Darling is another accident waiting to happen.

      Every time he’s pressured he blinks and stutters his way through lies and spin and the people of Scotland are no mugs. They can smell a waster and fearmonger a mile off. Have a little faith folks. Even with ALL the help the MSM can give him A. Salmond will pick and destroy Darlings arguments.

      Any way , this is a grass roots movement and it has mind of it’s own. The debate may sway some but most have an idea of how they will vote. We wanted a debate and Cameron has bottled out so Darling will be a great “substitute” as expressed by Wee Eck

      Should be a walk in the park

      keep the faith

  26. I’m amazed anyone here seriously thinks Scotland will continue to use Sterling. That simply won’t happen.

  27. Darling has been thrown to the wolves to take the blame for loosing Scotland which is why they have told him to do this debate and why they wont publish the secret polls. Darling is a patsy.

  28. I heard last week that the format was to be the same as the previous ones on STV that created the ‘stairheid rammy’ This format does not work unless properly chaired and I have yet to see one whereby groundrules were laid down in advance and the chair ensured they were strictly adhered to.

    I fear that Darling will use the usual Labour ploy of shouting over Salmond when he speaks so the audience cannot hear what is said. Darling will also continue in usual Labour fashion with sentences containing ‘The SNP’ or ‘Alex Salmond’. He will avoid answering the questions put to him.

    In the end Colin McKay’s verdict will be that Darling won.

  29. Bellacaledonia, you have a captive audience. Why do you not use your position to muster people and advise them on how to act as a collective and petition STV or put some form of pressure on them that we can at least try to ensure some sort of equal unbiased coverage? There are so many articles on problems these days but none seem to give any advise on how to deal with them. If we are mostly made up of individuals sitting on our own in our homes reading articles and getting vexed but doing nothing about it, are we not already conquered?

  30. Unfortunately the debate is scheduled for the 5th August so the above action will likely be a wee bit late for pressure on STV to host a fair debate.

    “I’m not hopeful any of this will happen. To date, the mainstream media have shown little enthusiasm for framing the Independence debate as two competing narratives. I just hope, for the sake of honest and fair political debate, that Alex Salmond’s advisors lay down the law and demand both options are given an equally vigorous cross-examination.”

    Bellacaledonia uses a banner which states ” There is no reality except in action”. We should be supportive of Alex Salmond whilst he is representing us therefore, i reiterate, you have a captive audience so point the way and there can be room for “hope” and not “i’m not hopeful”. Otherwise, unfortunately, the above article is just cyberspace chip paper (in my opinion).

    • Hi Mau, unfortunately STV is a privately owned entity with a “duty” to report in an unbiased way, whether they do or not will not be revealed until all this is done and dusted ( a small fine if any imposed) the BBC was once again today protested against for their now obvious bias ( for the third time and they still didn’t report it ) For me, the debate between Salmond and Darling is but a side show for the undecided , the grassroots campaign taking place is now massive and it’s telling that the bookies will only allow a £225 bet on YES but unlimited bets on NO, bookies do enjoy making money and it looks like they’ll be making the money from the no side. Keep up the work, one conversation at a time we’re winning this thing.

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