Winners? Losers? Purpose? – Why the TV debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling did not shift voters

Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0.

Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body – 2012. Licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0.

– by Jan Eichhorn (Twitter: @eichhorn_jan)

Last Tuesday (5 August) we got to witness what was meant to become a major highlight of the campaigns leading to the referendum on Scottish independence in September. The Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond from the Scottish National Party took on the leader of the Better Together campaign Alistair Darling. Much was written about the debate in advance: it was clear that the core objective for both campaigns had to be convincing those undecided or at least not fully firm in their views. This group that is still willing to change or has to make up their mind overall makes up about a quarter of the electorate still. They are the ones that may still be moved into either camp (although the majority of them already has a leaning). It was clear that if you could not reach them, you would not be able to reach anybody.

TV debates obviously focus strongly on the actual discussants and evaluations of their performance rests not simply on the quality of arguments, but also their personal appearance. A strong media narrative existed before the debate: Alex Salmond is the better speaker, expected to do substantially better than the somewhat less charismatic Alistair Darling who has been criticised for reservedness (or boredom in the less subtle commentary). However Salmond was also presented to have more pressure with “Yes” being behind in the polls and he would have to win by a landslide to make a change while Darling can play to a draw.

The result at the end of the night: Most commentators called it a draw overall without a clear winner, but with Darling apparently having surprised for being animated and aggressive while Salmond was rather defensive at times – and while he came across statesmanlike, he also slipped into unfortunate colloquialism (the aliens attack Scotland exaggeration being one of many). The arguments were not great on either side, but most of the focus, as we may have expected, was on the debaters’ personal performance.

The debate itself was not great. Key topics focussed on (the currency foremost but also Europe) are favourites of the campaigns and media, but issues that simply are not decisive in deciding the outcome for the majority of Scots, in particular those undecided – as we (and others) have shown repeatedly through our research. The issues played to were those that the partisans (of which there were many in the audience, which resulted in reiterations of the same themes) care about, but not those the undecided voters do. Key themes, such as Economic policy, pension plans and the use of the oil were discussed towards the end, but by then time ran out to really get into details. Few undecided voters found help in these discussions. While Salmond wasted an opportunity to talk about actual policies when asking about rhetoric (“project fear”) instead in his first question, Darling kept focussing on the abovementioned issues without advancing to areas the non-partisan voters wanted to hear answers on.

But the debate was not the only thing of limited quality that night. A lot (though not all) of the commentary after the debate was not any better. A key issue was that few media figures criticised the focus on topics not key to those still making up their mind, while saying at the same time that the undecided need to be the focus – which is partially due to many of the media outlets continuing to focus on exactly those areas of debate that many political, academic and media circles find most important, ignoring what the majority of voters actually care about most. I could not help myself but feel that much of the night’s narrative seemed premeditated: Effectively Salmond was set out to be in a position where, unless he would perform miracles, he could only fail to achieve the landslide win that was expected of him. And while indeed, many things can be criticised about the arguments chosen and opportunities missed, I felt that the presentation of the situation and the surprise about the balance of performances was exaggerated throughout.

Alistair Darling is not some third-rate figure in British politics. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer and therefore one of the most important cabinet members under prime minister Gordon Brown. He was first elected to the British parliament in Westminster in 1987 and has debated as simple parliamentarian and cabinet member in one of the most confrontational parliaments – in terms of debating style – eventually having to defend the UK’s budget in the financial crisis. Portraying him as an out-to-loose figure in a debate was underplaying him substantially (if you watch some of his early campaign speeches from the 1980s you understand that he can play different roles in different settings rather well).

I think it is more than unfortunate when a performance is evaluated as better, because the opponent already attacks the other candidate personally in the opening statement, as it supposedly shows passion. And while the cheers in the audience probably represented mainly people who had made their mind up on either side and saw it confirmed by the person they were supporting anyways, those who still try to decide which evidence to trust more must have been left silently hoping the debate would eventually evolve. If the next edition (which, negotiations succeeding, will be held 25 August on the BBC) is meant to achieve more for those who really are looking for an engagement with key issues and facts, then the candidates need to drop more of the old and worn out rhetoric and focus less on pleasing their supporters (who are convinced anyways). But also, commentators across media and academia should try and engage with the debate in a way that is not so pre-programmed, to make the analyses after the discussions more than simple confirmations of the narratives they created beforehand.

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If you are interested to know more about our analyses on the Scottish independence referendum or would like to come to public dissemination events we are organising or are involved with (in Berlin and Edinburgh), please get in touch. We can direct you to the types of factual information on particular issues and public attitudes relating to them and interesting events if you want to learn more about the state of the campaigns: http://www.politischepartizipation.de/index.php/de/kontakt

Dr Jan Eichhorn is the Research Director of d|part, teaches at the University of Edinburgh in Social Policy and coordinates attitudes research projects on the Scottish independence referendum within the “Future of the UK and Scotland” programme of the Economic and Social Research Council that finances the research.

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