I wonder just how much of a realist Alistair Carmichael is. It won't have been a surprise to any of the viewers of tonight's referendum debate that the closing verdict of the STV pundits was that Nicola Sturgeon had won by a country mile, but the oddly satisfied expression on Carmichael's face a few minutes earlier gave me the distinct impression that he was genuinely oblivious to how badly he was faring. Maybe he's just good at bluffing - in which case he should probably be in the poker game rather than the politics game.
In a way Carmichael's meltdown was a touch unexpected, because it's generally assumed that one major reason that he is now in harness as Scottish Secretary is the poor showing of his predecessor in a debate with Sturgeon on the same programme a few months back. (Although as we all know, John Rentoul's assessment of Scottish matters is infallible, and it's therefore highly likely that Michael "007" Moore is merely pretending to be politically dead, à la Skyfall, and will terrifyingly re-emerge to annihilate the Yes campaign at some unspecified date before the referendum.) Carmichael performed creditably in the 2010 Scottish "leaders' debates", when Nick Clegg perpetrated one of his many con-tricks on the electorate by putting forward someone who we now know was only his third choice as Scottish Secretary to represent the Lib Dems. So if nothing else, replacing Moore with Carmichael ought to have shored things up for the No campaign on the TV debating front. Why, then, did Carmichael under-perform so poorly tonight in comparison with his efforts in 2010? I think perhaps the four-way format flattered him in the general election debates, and in an intense one-on-one duel his weaknesses as a debater were more cruelly exposed. But more fundamentally, I also think he was able to debate with more passion in 2010 because he was actually (at least to some extent) arguing for policies he believed in. I'm not suggesting that he's a closet supporter of independence, but so many of the arguments he put forward against independence tonight were obviously contrived and synthetic, and his heart just didn't seem to be in them. By contrast, there can't have been a doubt in anyone's mind that Nicola Sturgeon was speaking from true conviction.
As ever on these occasions, there were one or two jaw-dropping moments from the No campaign's champion. From memory, he said something along the lines of "I can tell you with absolute certainty that what Scotland wants, Scotland will get". Wow. I mean...wow. Judging from his response to Nicola Sturgeon's follow-up questions it seems clear enough that he wasn't suggesting that Scotland will get the government it actually votes for in future (how ridiculous would that be!), which only leaves the possibility that he was 'guaranteeing' that Scotland will get precisely the devolved powers it wants - which we know from polling evidence means that pretty much every governmental power would be transferred from London to Edinburgh, with the possible exceptions of foreign affairs and defence. How on Earth can he square that 'certainty' with repeated statements from the UK government and other parts of the No campaign that, while independence may be a matter for the Scottish electorate alone to decide, Devo Max is subject to an absolute veto from the rest of the UK, not just in terms of the details but in terms of the whole principle?
Oh yes, and let's backtrack for a moment to when Sturgeon challenged him to say that Scotland would never again end up with a Tory government it hadn't voted for. His risible retort was : "What's your problem with democracy?" Well, leaving aside the whole question of the democratic deficit caused by unwanted Tory rule, let's just take a look at the two campaigns' respective positions on democracy, shall we?
Written constitution limiting the powers of the executive.
Proportional representation for national elections.
A fully elected national parliament.
Unwritten constitution allowing for sweeping 'elective dictatorship' powers for the executive in the guise of the royal prerogative.
First-past-the-post for national elections.
A national parliament comprised of one elected chamber, and one wholly unelected chamber (including guaranteed seats for clerics of just one religious denomination).
I know which side of this debate looks liberal and democratic to me. For reasons only known to himself, the so-called 'Liberal Democrat' is on the other side.
Anyway, here's how I scored the debate -
Nicola Sturgeon (pro-independence campaign) 9/10
Alistair Carmichael (anti-independence campaign) 5/10