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.