Striking Differences in Scottish Leaders’ Debate

I’ve just finished watching the Scottish leaders’ debate on the BBC. I missed last night’s, but from what I saw on Twitter and in newspaper commentary, tonight’s had some similar themes.

Compared to the UK-wide, 7-way leaders’ debate last week, there were some very striking differences. The first was the general tenor of the debate: for the most part, despite the presence of a highly disagreeable UKIP MEP, there was a tendency towards plain speaking and even a willingness to meet straight questions with straight answers. This made for some of the interesting moments and occasionally policy apparently being made on the hoof.

This leads me to the second and most important point. Nicola Sturgeon, fresh from her “victory” last week, where she effectively played the role of Nick Clegg circa 2010, was under serious pressure at three key points tonight.

Firstly, on the issue of a second referendum, she effectively admitted that this would depend on shifting public opinion – implying that polling might be enough of a trigger for the SNP to push for another plebiscite. More sensible was her suggestion that an EU exit might be a suitable trigger for a referendum, a position with which I have far more sympathy.

Secondly, and very significantly, Sturgeon came under heavy fire for her support for “full fiscal autonomy” for Scotland. Short of a referendum, this is the obvious next-best policy for the SNP. The trouble is that it would create economic chaos overnight, a point made by almost everyone else on the panel. Sturgeon had no answer to this and at one point looked almost Cameronian, her face rapidly reddening and her temper clearly fraying.

Thirdly, she was put under real pressure over Trident. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, did a great job of putting her on the spot with what was a genuinely forensic question, pointing out that while it was one thing for SNP MPs “not to support” Trident renewal, it would be another for them to commit to voting against it no matter what. Sturgeon again was forced to make an immediate policy decision, stating that her MPs would indeed vote against Trident renewal. This is a highly significant issue as the Main Gate decision on Successor is due to be taken in 2016. Sturgeon prayed in aid the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, suggesting that even if a minority government were to lose a vote on such a significant issue as the defence of the realm, it would not constitute a vote of no confidence. I am not so sure, and neither are many constitutional experts, but it is another indication of the likely importance of the Act in determining the stability of the post-2015 government.

As for the rest of the panel, I felt Jim Murphy was too aggressive, often shouting over other people (particularly Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon). He did well to challenge the UKIP MEP on immigration, but the fact that he represents a party that has entirely pandered to the demonisation of immigrants made that sound a bit hollow. Willie Rennie did a good job when given the chance, but probably didn’t intervene enough in what was a lively debate. I actually thought Patrick Harvie for the Greens was very articulate and did fairly well – his only real rabbit-in-the-headlights moment was when he was asked whether he was saying the Green Party wouldn’t support any capitalist government by James Cook, the BBC host! For a moment it seemed Harvie was channelling Natalie Bennett’s disastrous freeze on LBC the other week, but thankfully he recovered himself after a short interval.

A final, general comment: the debate was, broadly, both more entertaining and of a better quality (in terms of policy and straight talking) than the UK-wide equivalent. The Scottish leaders have much they could teach their Westminster counterparts.

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