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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Jenni Russell on Nick Clegg

The Times’ political coverage is, I tend to think, the best of the non-specialist newspapers (I’m not including the FT in that group). Ok, it’s a Murdoch paper and inevitably leans centre-right – but it’s no Daily Telegraph. It’s also distinguished by having a stable of extremely sensible commentators and columnists. These come from disparate backgrounds but are chiefly notable for their fair-mindedness.

Chris Furlong/Getty Images

So it is that last night’s debate receives a wide range of different reviews on the Times website. In particular I was struck by Jenni Russell’s piece which culminated thus:

For me, Clegg was the underrated performer of the night. I didn’t share in the Cleggmania of five years ago; but tonight I was impressed by the sheer determined decency of the man who has seen his party immolated in the cause of the coalition, but who is still positive and hopeful in telling people that only the Lib Dems can moderate Tory cuts and Labour overspends.

You may not agree with him, but you ought to salute his spirit.

This very much reflects my own view of the Lib Dem leader. After five years of coalition government I can’t help but admire his tenacity, bravery and optimism, whatever I might feel about some of the decisions he’s made on behalf of the Lib Dems.

Two Worlds Collide in the #LeadersDebate

I’ve never really been the kind of person to give an instant reaction to anything. My sister is the complete opposite: you could tell us both the same news and you’d know instantly what her response was – usually incoherent rage righteous anger. I’m usually slow to react, either because I’m still trying to get my head around what I’ve heard, or because I am feeling conflicted about it, or because I want to maintain my lofty rationality in the face of base emotion. (That last one’s more theoretical.)

So having watched the heptagonal #leadersdebate, aired on ITV last night, I’ve taken some time to chew over what I saw. I am sure that there has been no end of commentary, and with the Easter Bank Holiday weekend now in full swing, most politically-engaged people will have read much of it already.

Certainly on Twitter and Facebook there seems to have been some consensus emerging. A lot of this was around the fact that Nigel Farage is a horrible individual. I’m not sure how surprising that is, but it certainly bodes well for any future EU referendum that even naturally right-wing voters (and I know and love quite a few of those) simply find him appalling.

(h/t Financial Times)

The other thing that came out strongly from many of the responses I saw was that it was great to see some diversity in the debate. Certainly it was good to have some balance, although it was painfully white. I always flinch a bit, too, at the idea that it’s in any way surprising when politicians of the calibre and experience of Nicola Sturgeon – who is, after all, the current First Minister of Scotland, and who has been in government for longer than anyone else on the panel – prove themselves articulate and competent.

My main reaction to the debate was that it really was a collision of worlds. There were two separate conversations running simultaneously, each only including some of the leaders. Nigel Farage was of course having his own personal conversation, aimed at people who already think he is Churchill reborn.

On one hand, you had a serious-minded, largely managerial discussion between David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband on the realities of government and policy. This was painfully familiar to those of us who live and breathe the political process, but would still have been relatively new to most voters. I thought all three leaders did well in stating their case, but that as in 2010, Clegg did a particularly effective job in demonstrating that there is a middle ground to be found. It felt far less fresh this time around – and will have a drastically diminished impact on the Lib Dems’ fortunes – but it will still have an impact on the ground.

On the other hand, you had a far more free-wheeling conversation led by the anti-austerity brigade. Sturgeon in particular took on Clegg’s 2010 mantle as the sharp, intelligent and human alternative to “politics as usual”. She also capitalised well on the other leaders’ ignorance of Scottish politics, which enabled her to make bold assertions on issues like privatisation and funding of the Scottish NHS that, on closer inspection, simply fall apart.

To me, the big tactical question of the evening was whether Ed Miliband would get dragged into that debate. He will be pleased today that he largely avoided it. The decision he had to make was whether to present himself as the main challenger to David Cameron, or to spend his time fending off attacks from smaller parties. He chose the former – correctly – and emerged unscathed.

What does it all mean? In terms of this campaign, very little. None of the parties will receive a major boost in the polls as a result of the debate. While Sturgeon probably “won”, as far as anyone could, her party has already risen as high as it can in Scotland alone.

Does a seven-strong debate change the view people have of general elections? Perhaps. But until we have seven parties capable of having one conversation, not much will change.