STV last night hosted the debate we’ve all been waiting for - Alex Salmond, Iain Gray, Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott going head-to-head to debate the issues at the heart of Scotland’s future.
On this showing, the one result that matters is that the public is unlikely to be as enthused by the political campaigns as they were during last year’s General Election. For the most part, it was uninspiring stuff. At times it was so bad I contemplated watching back episodes of Spitting Image, just to remind myself how good political debate used to be! It’s no wonder that the public are reported to back the Greens over exclusion from the TV debates: at least Patrick Harvie would have provided some colour.
As a Lib Dem, let’s start with Tavish Scott’s performance. He obviously thought it was best to play with a straight bat and concentrate on some key issues. There’s nothing wrong with that approach at all, and he was quite effective when it came to policing issues and speaking up for rural communities in regards fuel prices. He also said some positive and welcome things about small businesses and spoke openly about his daughter’s experience with tuition fees to underline his continued opposition to them. But in a debate in which he had very little to lose, I was concerned Scott didn’t go on the offensive more, be more positive and try to land a few punches – especially on Iain Gray who looked way out of his depth. Scott simply didn’t appear confident, and neither did he look prepared. He must have anticipated that the audience would be largely hostile to Lib Dem involvement in the Westminster coalition and although he dealt with criticism reasonably well he always looked on the back foot, when he really should have been looking to set the agenda.
The worst moment for Scott was when he said "if this a personality contest count me out". I know what he’s getting at. But it was frankly a terrible admission, especially during a presidential-style debate. I can’t have imagined Nick Clegg saying that during last year’s debates, or for that matter Gordon Brown. I think Scott needs to do a little more preparation before the next debate. I didn’t disagree with a word he said, but he really has to work on his presentation and target Gray more effectively.
I note that Christine Jardine, our candidate for Inverness, tweeted “I watched the debate. Tavish was excellent.” I’m not too sure the public would agree, and Scott needs to use these debates in a way he didn’t last night, to highlight differences between the Lib Dems and the two main parties and set his own agenda distinct from the Westminster coalition.
Annabel Goldie, my Conservative opponent in Renfrewshire North and West, looked quite positive and her debating experience showed. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say I was surprised at how good she was. Her performance was particularly impressive given recent controversies within her party and she was the one leader who looked as if they were enjoying themselves. I disagreed with her on many things, not least her stance to charge Scottish students tuition fees and her defense of Osborne’s Budget. But she stuck to her unpopular position, and deserves some credit for her attack on Iain Gray over his party’s voting against the Scottish Budget. She also played up what she considers Tory achievements in opposition. It was a solid if not spectacular position and her views are not likely to resonate with the public at large but at least she looked like...well...a leader.
Which is more than can be said for Iain Gray. I felt almost sorry for him at times, he was so out of his depth. It can be a lonely experience leading a party, not to mention a particularly tough one if you lack the basic skills. Gray has never been the most charismatic of people, but that doesn’t necessarily matter if you are an assured and confident debater with a grasp of the facts. Unfortunately Gray looked neither assured nor confident and his strategy appeared to be one of aggression towards Salmond and playing the populist card over the Megrahi release.
Whichever senior Labour figures advised this tactic should resign immediately. It not only didn’t work, Gray looked isolated and ridiculous. His performance was poor to put it bluntly.
The Labour Chronicle (sorry, the Daily Record) takes the rather strange view that Gray “put in a calm and confident performance”. Really? That must have been a different debate reporter Magnus Gardham was watching because I thought Gray looked gutless and dispirited, and that was even before the debate kicked off. The Record also gave credence to a Labour source explaining that “Alex Salmond and Annabel Goldie spent the evening cuddling up to each other. It showed how close their parties have become”. Is this what Scottish journalism has been reduced to? Promoting a desperate attempt by Labour to paint Salmond as a Tory?
It is a shame because Gray is more capable than many imagine, but he has to learn to counter the “Gray by name, grey by nature” image by selling himself as a serious, knowledgeable and experienced politician; a safe and competent pair of hands. He looked far from that last night. He couldn’t even manage a smile – even dour Gordon Brown could get in a joke now and then.
I also thoroughly dislike the way in which the Megrahi release has been turned into a political football. I say this only because I know one of the families and feel that somewhere along the lines their concerns for justice and their views on the matter are being forgotten or overlooked by those keen to make political mileage. Yes, it was a political decision made by a politician. And politicians can and should be accountable for the decisions they make. But cynically using this populist card to get one over the SNP is tiresome – as well as suggesting that Gray has few other weapons in his arsenal.
So I finally come to Alex Salmond. He’s a hard man to like, but an easy man to admire. He’s infuriating but inescapably self-confident. He loves the presidential style and was in his element here. He confidently and dismissively dealt with Gray’s snipes and while taking a bit of flak over student funding and Scotland’s debt he looked prepared throughout. The Record claimed he looked “subdued throughout” which is utter nonsense; in spite of hardly getting out of second gear – either in spite of or because of Iain Gray’s performance – he appeared confident while successfully managing not to look arrogant. It was hardly a vintage performance but in the circumstances was more than sufficient to demonstrate his superior quality to Labour’s leader.
While it pains me to say it, Scott and Goldie are of only peripheral interest to many voters. The key battleground is between Labour and the SNP. On this basis, there is no contest between their respective leaders. The real story of last night, as Alex Cole-Hamilton neatly summarised on twitter, was that Iain Gray “looks utterly unconvincing as a potential First Minister”. Nobody who watched the debate, other than the most partisan of Labour supporters (and Daily Record reporters), could possibly disagree.
I hope for the next debate the audience is a little less partisan and that Tavish Scott can truly find his voice. I also hope for some more interesting exchanges and a debate of real quality that inspires the electorate to get out and vote. On this showing, many will simply stay at home – and who could blame them?
I would rate the performers in the following order:
4) The audience
6) The Daily Record