Blogs Coffee House

Alex Salmond vs Alistair Darling, the Rematch

25 August 2014

3:10 PM

25 August 2014

3:10 PM

Like Paradise Lost, no-one – not even humble freelance hacks – ever wished the Scottish independence referendum campaign longer. We are, most of us, exhausted. Almost all passion has been spent. Which is just as well since, frankly, people are beginning to lose the run of themselves.

Take the ice bucket challenge. (Readers unfamiliar with social media may be unfamiliar with this. It is a fundraising challenge – originally for Motor Neurone Disease research – in which the hapless gallant stooge is soaked by a bucket of iced water. All to prove what a good egg they are. They then nominate other folk to be soaked to prove what grand eggs they are. And so on.)

Clearly this is the sort of thing that must be ruined by politicians. Just for fun and a good cause, obviously, but really to show what good sports they are. So when Alistair Darling – who does at least know a former colleague with MND – agreed to be soaked you knew it was only a matter of time before Alex Salmond would do so too. We cannot afford an ice bucket gap.

Sigh. So Mr Salmond and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, duly did their duty. All in a good cause, of course, even if that cause is good publicity. And, to no-one’s surprise, the SNP’s leaders decided to nominate their political opponents – David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Johann Lamont and so on. I am not sure this was meant kindly. (Ms Lamont, of course, has been dragooned into accepting the “challenge”. Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg appear disinclined to play along.) Like many fun and trivial things there was something telling about all this. Even raising money for charity, you see, can be used as a useful political dividing line. A chance to put yourself on-up and, more importantly, your opponents one-down. Sigh. Again.

Anyway, tonight’s another day and all that. Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling meet again, like twa witches on a blasted heath, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery this evening for the second of their debates on the matter of Scotland and her future. If it is not quite their last chance to make an impact it is their last chance to make a large impact in front of a large audience. The gloves are off.

Last time out Salmond’s aides were confident he’d batter Darling. They forgot, or ignored the time-honoured convention that expectations should be lowered, not raised, in advance of any debate. So much so, in fact, that a draw would have been interpreted as a victory for Darling.


As it turned out, Darling won a comfortable victory. Which, in turn, ensures that Salmond should properly be considered the odds-on favourite to win tonight. (This is less dramatic than it sounds: in any two-horse race one nag is likely to be odds-on.) He benefits from reduced expectations just as Darling is burdened by greater expectations.

So Salmond should win, not least because it is as unreasonable to expect him to perform so poorly again as it is to think Darling will do so well as he did in their first encounter.

That’s the set-up.

But, in the end, the actual performance in the debate matters less than how the performances are perceived. Winning is in the eye of the beholder and the manner in which the bout is judged will help colour the retrospective views even of those folk who actually watched the damn thing and reckoned they could make their own minds up thank you very much.

I’m not sure the first debate really moved the polls very much and it would be a surprise – though the possibility cannot be discounted – if this one did too. Many viewers will think their guy won even if he performs like Ben Swain.

As Stephen Daisley correctly observes:

Who’s right and who’s wrong, that quaint old notion, isn’t really the point. This is now a campaign of two Projects Fear. Vote Yes and lose the pound. Vote No and lose your doctor. Salmond and Darling will not replace the names Lincoln and Douglas in the annals of elevating political debate.

Fear works. The object for the two men is not so much to refute the other’s charges as it is to scare undecided and soft Yes and No voters over to their side. We will hear the word “risk” a good deal tonight from both men. Salmond will tell us a No vote risks leaving Scotland’s NHS vulnerable to cuts from George Osborne, whom the Yes campaign has reimagined as a scalpel-wielding Thatcherite bogeyman.

Staying in the UK, he is likely to warn, also risks our place in Europe, should David Cameron’s promised referendum on membership of the EU be won by the forces of Euroscepticism. Other risk factors to listen out for: Tory majority government, Ukip, and tuition fees.

Au contraire, Darling will retort. The only risks are those we face if we vote for independence, or “separation” to use his preferred term. “Separation” will put our economy, our jobs, the very pound in our pocket under threat. A Yes vote, he will insist, is a vote to leave the EU and try to renegotiate our way in from the outside — and the same goes for Nato.

Indeed. I would be surprised – possibly even pleasantly surprised – if this proves an illuminating evening. That does not mean it will be a wasted one; the STV debate was, by the standards of these affairs, quite a good entertainment. It was certainly better – and more meaningful – than the leaders’ debates during the 2010 general election.

Still and in accordance with the traditional need to apply sporting metaphors to these tussles, this is a night for Alistair Darling to park the bus and dare Alex Salmond to break him down. That might not make for a scintillating evening but denying Salmond a clear victory is Darling’s chief objective this evening. A draw will do for him.

But it won’t for Salmond. Time is no longer his friend and though winning – and being seen to win – tonight won’t on its own swing the campaign his way another poor performance must be reckoned a set-back. He has less room for error than Darling, not least because, despite his best efforts to persuade Scots otherwise, the burden of proof remains with the Yes campaign.

I would expect – though stand ready to be refuted by events! – that Salmond will also wax more lyrical about our dreams and hopes, about how  fear is the only thing stopping Scotland being what it can – and should! – be. We can, he will say, do and be better than this. It is our moment, our opportunity, our shot at a place in the history books. What kind of people, given this kind of chance, turn it down? It’s not about Alex Salmond or even the SNP, he will say, it’s about us and the people we want to be. The idea of Scotland is a powerful thing indeed and Scotland is no lost cause at all, merely an unwon battle. We cannot afford a dream gap either.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • beenzrgud

    Salmond is more schoolyard bully than statesman, which may work in a debate with Darling but is not so good on the world stage. He seems to think that just because he would lead an independent Scotland then he would have free rein to do as he pleased. It would be more likely that he would severely piss off his counterparts and leave Scotland up the creek without a paddle.

  • GUBU

    Rather like watching two drunk men arguing in a kebab shop queue at 2.30am in the morning, I thought. After a while, you just want them to stop haranguing each other and get on to the part where they grab each other, fall to the ground and roll about the floor, before their friends do the decent thing and put an end to the whole sorry spectacle.

    An idea for a third debate, perhaps?

  • lailahaillallah

    But I sooooo want the whinging Jocks to leave; I mean, (in no real order) no Labour Government for, what? 25 years, and all that money that goes their way from, essentially, England. We could do with about £6Bn more to pay off our debts. We bring the shipbuilding back to Portsmouth and Devonport.

    If they want to keep the Pound, in the same way Montenegro uses the Euro, or Bosnia (amazingly) the Deutschmark in all but name, let them. They will be of about the same importance internationally.

    I want Jock to pay for his ain porridge and within a couple of years Mr Salmond will be touting his tartan begging bowl to the IMF and EU looking for the continual handouts of the Barnet formula. I doubt he will find a receptive audience. The chorus from Scotland will be “We didna ken, let us back” to which the rest of the Union will hopefully reply, “Aye, well ye ken the noo”.

    Dree yer ain wierd Alex.

  • Dean Jackson

    The concept of Union has always meant security from outside invasion, the original threat to Presbyterian Scotland and Anglican England being an invasion from either Catholic France or Catholic Spain. What else would bring two such diverse cultures together, the Celts of Scotland and the Anglo-Saxon Normans of England? And the threat of foreign invasion is more subtle today, even unseen, because the enemy is weak in numbers, hence the enemy’s need to conceal its identity. Who is this enemy that threatens Britain?

    The enemy is within and without, and are Marxists who’ve co-opted the political parties of the West, including the West’s leading institutions, from the media to religion. We know this to be true not only because we were warned of the enemy within by KGB defector Major Anatoliy Golitsyn in 1962, but because the West’s institutions failed to warn its populations that the collapse of the USSR (and East Bloc nations) was a strategic disinformation operation, as proved by the West’s failure to not only verify the collapse, but de-Communize the Soviet Armed Forces officer corps (which was 90% Communist Party officered in late 1991), and failure to de-mobilize the six-million vigilantes that assisted the Soviet Ministry of Interior and militia to control the populations in the larger Soviet cities.

    The West’s fate depended on verification of the collapse of the USSR, verification’s absence proving co-option of the West’s institutions. On the Soviet side, there could be no collapse when (1) the Soviet Armed Forces officer corps remained Communist Party dominated; and (2) six-million vigilantes continued to control the population.

    In order for Scotland to decide on Union or independence, Scots must be armed with all the information that’s necessary to make the correct decision. The co-opted media will not present the facts as laid out above.

  • Dorset Rambler

    Debate now over, I’ve yet to hear any argument to convince the English why they should back independent Scottish finances.

    I’m happy for Scotland to go if that’s what it really wants. But the SNP has yet to convince me, down in the far south, why I should be inclined to pay my part if Scottish finances subsequently go wrong.

    We’ve had one banking crisis. I don’t want to risk another.

  • Jacques Strap

    Alex Salmond, is he a fraud or is he just lacking the IQ of a jellyfish? It is hard to tell.

    His ‘arguments’ are absolutely hilarious. I dont care if Scotland stay or go, but the man is incredible, and not in a good way.

    Not to mention the rent a mob brigade to make to make it sound as though there is more support for him than there really is….

  • HJ777

    Salmond will lose because he can’t answer reasonable questions about his ‘plans’ and so he is resorting to scaremongering about what will happen to Scotland if it stays in the union.

    His latest tactic is to bang on about the NHS. Anyone would think that the NHS was a Scottish invention, rather than something it gained through being part of the union. He will cite how supposedly terrible it is that the NHS is being ‘privatised’ in England, despite the fact that however the NHS is run in England has no bearing on what happens in Scotland and that most comparisons show that the NHS in England is slightly superior to that in Scotland despite costing appreciably less.

    Over the years, the SNP keeps changing its position on why Scotland would be better separated from the rest of the UK – whatever the latest invented grievance is will do. and when they turn put to have been wrong as they were about joining the Euro, they cheerfully change their position and blame the union again for whatever it is that Scotland supposedly hasn’t got but should have, or has got but shouldn’t have (in the 1970s, they claimed that the union was keeping Scotland poor, now they clam that Scotland should leave because it is richer).

    Sensible people can see through this guff. And most Scots are sensible people.

  • HookesLaw

    It is of course preposterous that these two debates, which are all sound and fury signifying nothing – nothing more than a beauty contest, becomes the synthesis of what this broad and important issue is all about.

  • C. Gee

    Its about Salmond and the Harold Wilson he wants to be. It is his moment, his opportunity, his shot at a place in the history books. Scotland already has one.

  • global city

    Liverpool are playing Manchester City at the Etihad tonight…. a match of much greater significance/interest than Salmon vs Blackbrow!

    • randomsausage

      I agree: will be interesting to see the viewing figures! Actually if Captain Darling said Scotland would have to re-negotiate the English Premier League viewing rights contract after independence…..the No Vote would surge.

      • global city

        Och aye!

      • ryongsong

        Why would the No vote surge? We wouldn’t have tp pay such daft amounts to watch it if we were a foreign market, and a Scottish OFCOM could also insist on the unbundling of Scottish and English football.

  • RavenRandom

    Darling needs to punch away at the area where Salmond is vulnerable namely the pound, economy and EU. The handwavium of the SNP towards economics and therefore the livelihoods of 5 million Scots is their weak point.

    • Jacques Strap

      The EU?

  • Jupiter

    Only another three weeks of this mind numbing, tedious rubbish to go, and then we can all have a good laugh at fat Salmond as he sees his lifelong dream of independence go up in smoke.

    • Vera

      And everlasting bile and grudge from Scotland.

      • IainRMuir

        It won’t end in September you know. Sorry, but it just won’t.

        Scotland will vote ‘no’, obviously, then the blame game will start.

        • Vera

          Yes you are right. Even if they vote ‘yes’ I have a feeling we will still be to blame.

      • Fergus Pickering

        So nothing’s changed then. That’s the way (some) Scots are.

  • Ron Todd

    When somebody has a heart attack after having a bucket of ice water poured over them it will stop.

    • RavenRandom

      Seems it’s just happened… a slight riff on it, but the challenge was the point of origin.

    • swatnan

      Being ‘iced’ is like being ‘waterboarded’; I think this craze was invented to prepare us all for the necessary interrogation of ISIS returnees from the Syrian and Iraqi Wars. Its only just a bit of fun that CIA and MI5/6 indulges in.

    • The Wiganer

      I’m sure the people who thought of this expected it to be just light hearted fun. But people being people, escalation is inevitable. I now know people who are being abused on the net for refusing to do the challenge.

  • Wessex Man

    When this is all over are you going to a nice long rest? One wonders what you will find to blather about.

  • Alexsandr

    Salmond will lose. He has no answer to lack of enthusiasm in Westminster for a monetary union. Thats the game changer. that will give a no outcome.
    then we have to sort out barnett and west lothian.

    • Portendorfer

      I am nervous.
      Pride comes before a fall.
      I am nervous.

      • High Sheriff

        Do not worry.
        Salmond has been and gone.
        Sensible Scots have moved on.

  • CharlietheChump


    • Fergus Pickering

      Now THAT is the most significant post. And there are weeks to go.

      • Kitty MLB

        I watched that ballooned ego floating around in his
        self-esteem last night with a bunch of ignorant and
        ill informed people in the audience…and within 30
        minutes gave up. Cannot deal with the caterwaulling from
        a bunch of fried mars bar eating deluded people with
        major chips on their shoulders.

        • Fergus Pickering

          I never even started. And there are WEEKS more of this.

  • dado_trunking

    This ice bucket thing is downright sexist and I emphatically disapprove.
    Not a single new front bench, back row, marginally seated, show girl conservative minister was ordered to partake in what is in essence a wet t-shirt challenge.

    • swatnan

      Perhaps Penny Mordant and Nadine Dories will oblige.

  • dougthedug

    So when Alistair Darling – who does at least know a former colleague with MND – agreed to be soaked you knew it was only a matter of time before Alex Salmond would do so too. We cannot afford an ice bucket gap.

    Just to be clear, both were nominated at the same time by the actor James McAvoy and both accepted the ‘ice bucket challenge’. There was no “matter of time” about it.

    • The Wiganer

      James McAvoy nominated Darling and Salmond. Darling did it and then, in the spririt of fun that it is meant, nominated his staff to do it.
      Alex Salmond does it and then immediately politicises it by nominating Cameron.Sturgeon, who wasn’t nominated by James McAvoy, then nominates more political opponents in Nick Clegg and Johann Lamont.

      A pretty cheap shot by the SNP in my opinion.

      • HJ777

        Cheap shots are all they have, so what did you expect?

      • dougthedug

        Darling would never have nominated Cameron. That’s his boss in Better Together.

      • dougthedug

        Salmond nominated Sturgeon, BBC correspondent Brian Taylor and Cameron. Only Cameron has failed the challenge.

        • Fergus Pickering

          So I should hope. Are vwe really such a joke? Why not nominate the Queen?.