Scotland’s Second TV “Debate” on Independence

If ever there was a demonstration of what is wrong with the current relationship between media and politicians it was the “Scotland Decides” debate last night. Arranged by the BBC with an invited, balanced audience it featured Alastair Darling, Alex Salmond and lightweight BBC presenter Glenn Campbell as mediator. The utter failure of mediation and the typical preference of covering a wide range rather than focussing on principle produced something that was, after 45 minutes, unendurable.

The fundamental question for the separatists to answer is what currency an independent Scotland would use. Darling rightly focussed on this, but abjectly failed to make the point that Salmond cannot be certain that the remainder of the UK will allow Scotland into a currency union with Sterling. Even if they did, which is increasingly unlikely, Scotland would have no power over it. Salmond’s threat that if he wasn’t allowed currency union he would not accept the Scottish share of the current UK national debt was never really challenged. I very much doubt that any Chancellor will be content with that arrangement, and as it seems fundamentally fair I suspect that would be the view of any arbiter. It would also render the Independence negotiation pretty short – Scotland would get nothing, with bills to follow.

Scotland could of course peg the Thistle (or whatever they want to call it) to Sterling, much as the Irish did with the Punt. The problem is that this gives them reduced control of their economy. At best it may give them a little stability while they either build some economic track record or join the Euro. Anyone with an ounce of common sense or financial acumen knows this.

Instead, Salmond was allowed to get away with mouthing this as blandishments. Similarly, he got away with his optimistic oil forecast and switching the discussion to the NHS and the problems of the Welsh Assembly. He gave a great performance of evading the question, landing sound bites and making Alastair Darling look lumpen. What he did not do was produce a coherent economic plan, or even the basis of it.

In a well-run debate the host would have kept him under control, forced him to answer the questions and prevent him from interrupting Darling’s flow (such as it was). In a courtroom the judge rules supreme, with the (usually unspoken) threat of Contempt of Court to bring unruly advocates to heel. Robin Day could do this on Question Time, and on a good day so can David Dimbleby. Paxman ruled on Newsnight. Sadly Glenn Campbell was utterly ineffective. The net result was two politicians speaking over each other, failing to stick to the salient points and operating as snake oil salesmen. In the absence of intellectual content, Salmond won.

As an Englishman from the South Coast I care little whether Scotland stays or goes, although as I blogged recently ( the more I think about it the happier I will be for Scotland to vote “Yes.” But I do care about the way in which elections are conducted, the harsh reality being that TV debates are far more influential than perhaps their content justifies. If Scotland does vote “Yes” in the wake of a fatuous TV encounter, I hope that the remainder of the UK learns from their lesson and starts to require more from its current affairs presenter than nice hair and a good smile.