Never before have so many waited so keenly to hear Alistair Darling speak. Tonight’s the night, however, and the fate of a nation hangs upon his words. Or so some folk would have us believe. Anyway: two hours of Alistair Darling, live on prime time television. We chosen people, we.

In truth, Darling is still the Other Guy in tonight’s debate with Alex Salmond just as the Better Together campaign has been the Other Lot for most of the independence referendum campaign. What he says and what they do matter; just not nearly as much as what Alex Salmond says and what the Yes campaign does. They are the fellows making the running; they are the crew with the point to prove and the people to convince.

The No campaign have, as is traditional in these matters, have done their best to scuttle expectations. Salmond, apparently, must leave Darling ‘lying on the floor’ and any failure to do so will mean that, technically like, Salmond will have lost the debate. Even if he is ahead on points. Here’s a video representation of the only way Salmond can win:

Sporting metaphors, I’m afraid, are unavoidable in this arena.

Be that as it may, the dark and secret truth about this debate is that few people think it will really change very much. This is because there are relatively few genuinely undecided voters out there and because, rather importantly, TV debates tend to change how an election is covered much more easily than they change voters’ minds.

We know this because our experience tells us so. The TV debates in 2010 dominated the last general election campaign but I’m not sure they had much impact on how people voted. Similarly, experience and research from the United States suggests that if presidential debates have an impact at all it is usually modest and short-lived.

It is, for sure, possible that Scotland and tonight will be different. Perhaps Darling will make some calamitous blunder; perhaps Salmond will wipe the floor with him. Perhaps this will matter. And you know, it might! The point is that there’s little reason – based on past experience – to think it will or must. Thinking this is a game-changing moment is, in the end, a faith-based approach to politics not a rational one. Which is fine. Sometimes faith is rewarded. Just not all that often.

Anyway, the point is that Darling does not need to sizzle. He just needs to be solid and hold his end up. True, he needs to avoid disparaging – even inadvertently – Scotland but pointing out the heroic optimism upon which the SNP’s economic forecasts depend is not the same as ‘talking Scotland down’. Sure, we can independent, the question is whether we need to be? And besides, why do we even have to make a choice? We can, he may say, have it all. Best of both worlds and all that jollity.

As for Salmond, well he’s having to settle for second-best. He desperately wanted to be debating David Cameron but must settle for Mr Darling. Going head to head with Cameron would have boosted Salmond’s status: a contest between Premiers. Sniping with Darling is not quite the same. In some ways it makes it a more parochial contest and one that, from a media perspective, is much less rewarding. Damn them all.

Still, I would expect Salmond to do well tonight and not just because he’s a competent media performer who’s been refining and rehearsing these arguments for 40 years. No, he will do well because the argument for independence is not idiotic or obviously the kind of thing in which only cranks and crackpots can believe. There is a credible, even respectable, case for it and Salmond will make it well.

There is a difference, admittedly, between what works in theory and the practical implementation and consequences of said theory but that is a different matter.

Still, anyone with any experience of any form of debating knows that these things rely on some measure of bluff and bluster. Moreover, you get away with what you can and if it ain’t challenged it ain’t falling down. Exaggeration, question-begging and special pleading are the orders of the day and if there will be few outright lies told tonight most things both men say will probably only be true up to a certain point. Truthiness will abound.

Viewers may not. Two hours of political debate is two hours more than some folk can stomach. Few will wish the programme longer.

Anyway, the fix is in you know. Salmond will win but not by enough to make a grand difference. That’s the story. Or, at any rate, the one people expect. Which, of course, colours the way we see, interpret and report the debate just as much as convinced Yes voters will persuade themselves that Salmond won a thumping victory and convinced No voters will cheer themselves with the thought that, actually, when you look at it properly you see that Darling won, technically speaking. But those are the rules of the game.

 

Tags: Alex Salmond, Alistair Darling, british politics, Scotland, Scottish independence, TV debates