At eight o’clock yesterday evening, Alan Titchmarsh: Love Your Garden aired on ITV in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scottish TV broadcast a two-hour live debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow. Billed as an evening that would decide the future of the United Kingdom, the first televised debate ahead of next month’s independence referendum was available only to viewers in Scotland. (The STV live stream, accessible throughout the union, reportedly crashed early on.)
The evening began, as almost everything in Scotland seems to these days, with the unveiling of an opinion poll. The moderator, Bernard Ponsonby, solemnly reported that 42 per cent intend to vote Yes, 58 per cent No, ‘when you strip out the don’t knows’. Salmond has never been a great debater – journalists who say he is have never had to endure first minister’s questions at Holyrood – but both Yes Scotland and the unionist campaign, Better Together, seemed keen to talk up the SNP leader. Pete Wishart, the Scottish nationalist MP for Perth and North Perthshire, said beforehand that the ‘slaughter will be worse than the Bannockburn re-enactment’.
The debate, when it finally started, looked like any other: two middle-aged men in suits gesticulating a lot, sometimes talking over each and occasionally shouting. The format was only recently imported to Britain but already it looks unbearably familiar. Salmond, calmer than usual, focused on the positive: an independent Scotland would be a fairer, more progressive place. He took little sorties from his podium, walking towards the audience, arms outstretched, to deliver rehearsed soundbites: ‘rocks will melt in the sun’ before the SNP introduces tuition fees. Darling emphasised the risks of leaving the UK. When the SNP leader said that only independence would guarantee that Scots get the government they vote for, the former chancellor pointed his finger across the rostrum and shouted: ‘I didn’t vote for him but I’m stuck with him.’ The audience clapped and booed in equal measure.
The main event – the ‘cross-examination’ – saw each man given twelve minutes to interrogate the other. Darling spent almost nine minutes haranguing Salmond over the question of what currency Scotland would use if the rest of the UK rejected a post-independence currency union. Salmond prevaricated, citing newspaper clippings and old press releases. If there is a No vote next month, Yes supporters could be left regretting the decision not to outline a currency Plan B, which many wavering Scots say they are worried about. Darling, for his part, struggled to answer questions about provisions for further devolution, even though the three unionist parties had announced earlier in the day that they had signed a joint pledge for more powers for the Scottish Parliament after the general election.
The commentators in STV’s ‘Spin Room’ declared the contest a draw: ‘No knock-out blows have been thrown.’ A snap post-debate poll put Darling ahead, 55 to 45, more or less in line with the pre-debate poll on referendum voting intentions.
I was left wondering what happened to the engrossing public conversation that I have heard over the last two years. By far the most interesting aspect of the Scottish independence debate has been the mass rallies and the town hall meetings. Scotland Decides reverted to type: enervating party hacks and a Punch and Judy show. The STV anchors kept telling viewers that ‘the debate has trended worldwide’ but if there were any undecided voters still watching by the time the curtain came down at 10 p.m. they could be forgiven for not bothering to vote at all on 18 September.