Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Salmond eases to debate win - as expected

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


  1. I don't think any of them did too badly. I certainly would not put a full five points between them, maybe Alex 7 Annabel and Tavish 6 Iain 5 something like that.

    I fear that as nationalists we fall into the trap that most people do when asked to rate their own driving as opposed to other people. Then give themselves 9/10 and everyone else 3/10 when in actual fact everyone is really 5/10!

  2. Never a fan of AS, he did okay. He after all has to defend his 4 years in office, the others don't have that to defend other than votes taken during that period. He seemed assured and comfortable during the programme and see no reason why this will continue up to polling day. It was not really a debate programme. I would give them 5 minutes each then allow the others to question them for 10 minutes and I would ditch the audience. I don't know if the make up artist at STV was anti-Labour but my he or she got mixed up with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Husband suggested to me that IG in his opinion had one or two sherberts befoe the programme.

  3. replace 'will' on line 4 with 'won't'

  4. Accepting that STV probably allowed the participants some make-up, I thought that Gray with his hair plastered down and pancake on his face looked like a Madame Tuissaud's exhibit.
    But the exhibit would have more charisma....

  5. "I don't think any of them did too badly. I certainly would not put a full five points between them"

    Admittedly Gray settled into it as it went on, but I really did think he was pretty awful for the first twenty minutes or so, and that will have stuck in people's minds. Tavish - harder to say, certainly his body language was fine and he always seems very confident, but there wsa no 'bite' to what he was saying that would really make him stand out. All the same, that was probably preferable to Angry Tavish that we sometimes see at FMQs!

  6. I'd probably agree with your ratings, James. I don't remember Alex putting a foot wrong - he gave good, clear answers and the one point which could have stumped him (Megrahi) was dealt with quite well.

    Tavish wasn't bad, but he wasn't great either, and the dig at the Amazon jobs was a bit of a strange bone of contention to pick, especially as it then presented Alex with the political equivalent of a tap-in.

    Bella was as you would expect from her - pretty assured, and although most would disagree with her policies, she at least argues her case well. It was refreshing that she helped put Iain Gray in his place on a couple of occasions, especially in regards to highlighting his party's record on council tax freezes, and I was pleased Ponsonby picked up on it.

    Gray? Well, what can you say about Iain Gray? On at least two occasions his attempts to duck questions were so blatant that even Daily Record journalists must have been cringing. His excuses for changing tact on council tax and tuition fees were pathetic, and he just looked childish when the debate turned to apprenticeships, especially when he kept saying 20,000 instead of 25,000.

    In regards to the FM poll, I agree it was quite cruel, but I also enjoyed the results. Iain Gray looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him up, and his attempt to say it showed the SNP was a one-man band wasn't fooling anyone, especially as it still failed to answer why he was below Bella. I actually thought Tavish dealt with his 2% rating very well indeed - a rare piece of wit from him in saying that a successful claim for the 37% undecided would see him at the top.

    I think Marcia has it right though - for a debate you expect them to be given a few minutes at the start to set out their stalls and for the questions to be asked and answered in a more formal way. This was more like an episode of Question Time.

  7. Why are the audiences at these things always full of such misfits? The hundred-year-old colonel drooling over Bella; the Lord Sutch-a-like in the hat; the lady whose voice trembled as she sang hymns to the glory of Eck; the space cadet who accused the Tories of attacking pensioners by cutting their council tax ("cuts are bad"). Let's just have the moderator and the panel next time.

  8. And, I should add, let's have Harvie there too. Have the SNP or Lib Dem leaderships responded yet to the Greens' request for support in getting on the panel? If not, that's kind of appalling.

  9. I agree with Colin that it is plain wrong that Patrick Harvie isn't there. The SNP rightly made a noise about being excluded from debates that were being shown in Scotland at the English election, surely a similar principle is involved here.

    No matter how well or badly the Greens do in teh election, they can always say that they would have done better if they had been treated fairly.

  10. Hopefully the parties will have learned that putting up activists to fawn over their leader and attack the others is blatantly obvious and reflects badly on their own party. And STV should do more to find an audience than lazily let people apply through a form on their site. While I'm at it, a structure to the programme and order to the questions would have been nice, although that is probably asking a little too much from STV.