First things first - if we're only having three leaders' debates, what on earth was the point of staging the opener five-and-a-half weeks out from polling day? The cynic in me wonders if the ITV network schedule might have been a factor in that decision, and even as it is the Border TV area seems to have been deemed as having only 'associate membership' of the Scottish nation for the evening.
I also intensely dislike STV's habit of starting debates with opinion poll findings. They've done it for years, but it really isn't good practice. Debates are supposed to provide a level playing field for the parties to reach out to the electorate on the basis of the quality of their arguments, and presenting Tavish "Two Hoots" Scott with a poll showing that only (concidentally) Two Per Cent of the public think he would make the best premier left the tallest of the party leaders looking about Two Feet Tall. It was rather funny, admittedly, but still wrong as a matter of principle.
Bernard Ponsonby generally did a good job of persistently homing in on the leaders' most vulnerable points, and seeing if they could wriggle free. There was one glaring exception, though - perhaps because of time constraints, Iain Gray's utterly fantastical assertion that Megrahi wouldn't have been freed if he had been First Minister went completely unchallenged. The Labour leader claimed there were three tests for whether compassionate release should have been granted - well, in fact in his case there would have been a fourth and absolutely decisive one, namely what his overlord Gordon Brown privately wanted him to do. A Labour government in Holyrood would indeed have made a fundamental difference to the outcome of the process - Megrahi would have been released for the wrong reasons, not for the right ones.
The general impression I got from watching Iain Gray was that his advisers must have urged him in advance to be consensual wherever possible and at all costs to resist the overwhelming temptation to snarl - but he just kept forgetting, especially when he had to depart from his prepared lines and think on his feet. The 'Snarl' effect is multi-faceted - it's not just the facial contortions, it's also the jabbing finger and the vengeful 'neutered Dalek' voice. He might just about be able to get away with such pointless belligerence in the bearpit of First Minister's Questions, but in the context of a more conversational TV debate it looks utterly ghastly.
Alex Salmond was in such fine form that he didn't need a lot of external assistance, but even so the opening question about whether Scotland had become a fairer place over the last four years worked in the SNP's favour in an unexpected way. Both Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott were keen to highlight their own achievements in the Scottish Parliament, but that necessitated a concession that, yes, indeed, Scotland had become fairer, which left Gray entirely on his own as he surveyed a landscape of SNP pestilence and devastation. An audience member - who didn't seem to be a Nationalist plant - delivered the coup de grâce by noting that after all the predictions of disaster of what would happen if the SNP came to office in 2007, they'd actually done pretty well. Nothing fantastic, but pretty well. For an incumbent government at the end of a four-year term, that's high praise indeed.
Gray's convoluted answer on the potential for a post-election coalition was telling - it seemed consistent with the conventional thinking that he is still personally hellbent on a toxic pact with the Lib Dems, but is keeping the option of minority government open to mollify colleagues who have thought the matter through rather more carefully. If the direction of travel for both Labour and the Lib Dems in recent polls continues, that may of course prove to be a somewhat academic dilemma.
Anyway, here is how I scored the leaders on their performances tonight -
Alex Salmond 9/10
Annabel Goldie 7/10
Tavish "Two Hoots" Scott 5/10
Iain "the Snarl" Gray 4/10