Tuesday. 43 days of campaigning to go. A big night out for a hand-picked and somewhat feisty audience.
As The Great Debate rumbled inexorably towards our living rooms, most folk agreed that Alex Salmond was the overwhelming favourite and Alistair Darling would end up taking his bum-cheeks home in a carrier bag.
So unquestioned was this outcome that Monday’s Telegraph tried to reframe the debate as a bizarre handicap event. To earn even a draw, Salmond would be required to rebut each of Darling’s arguments in hilarious rhyming couplets, then kick him in the nuts and dance around his writhing frame singing Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia without at any point appearing to be a bully. Meanwhile, if Darling could just remember his name, tie one shoelace and count backwards from 10, the victor’s garland would be his and he’d be chaired from the stage accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus.
It was clearly a set-up. It couldn’t have been a more obvious trap if it had consisted of a luminous arrow pointing to a pile of carefully-arranged twigs beside a neon sign saying, “OVER-CONFIDENT ELEPHANTS THIS WAY.” As the Twittersphere crackled with Yes supporters’ accounts of Darling being spotted in Morningside looking nervous, or outside his house trying to rescue his prompt cards from his dog’s jaws, or on the verge of the A9 hitching a lift to Caracas, I found it hard to stop myself grabbing people by the lapels and shouting, “Listen to me! I may be a wild-eyed old man with soup stains on his cardigan, but this is hubris and we must all beware!”
Notwithstanding Nicola’s triumphant romp through early skirmishes with pussycat Michael Moore and puffball Alistair Carmichael, TV political debates are circuses that rarely yield a conclusive result. Even George W Bush, a man in whose cranium thoughts often die of loneliness, was able to find a way of getting through them unscathed.
Labour politicians possess all the tools to do likewise: a complete absence of shame, turbo-charged mouths and unhindered access to Jackie Baillie’s Big Book of Fibs. You wouldn’t put Alistair Darling in charge of a bank even if it had the word “bottle” before it, but he’s been an MP for 27 years, held five Cabinet posts and spent three years dodging staplers hurled by Gordon Brown, so maintaining a constant flow of drivel in high-pressure situations is second nature to him.
As a further incentive for Darling, tucked into his sock was a hand-written message from David Cameron, absent in Portugal on a sudden holiday, saying, “Just found enough oil in the Clair Field to bankroll London’s vanity projects for the next 50 years, so you’d better not foul this up, dipstick!” Finally, in a dastardly piece of wrong-footing, he’d switched spectacle frames to disguise his truth-betraying facial tics. This raised the chilling prospect of one of his eyebrows escaping unobserved into the audience, but no doubt he considered that a price worth paying.
Meanwhile, Alex Salmond’s gas was at such a low peep you wondered whether someone had stuffed a potato in the supply pipe. Apart from a Paxmanesque multiple challenge of Darling’s tap-dancing around the words “Scotland isn’t a basket case” and “I agree with David Cameron”, and a rumbustious filleting of the former Chancellor’s wafer-thin credentials as a financial regulator, he seemed content to leave the attacking to his opponent. During the prolonged currency inquisition, which I personally watched from behind the sofa with a paper bag over my head, this appeared to take rope-a-dope tactics rather too far.
Still, as wiser heads subsequently intoned to squeamish jellies like me, Salmond’s objective may have been to flip… sorry, turn the tedious “SNP are bullies” myth on its head, and give Darling ample opportunity to reveal himself as a hectoring, finger-pointing jackass. If so, going by the ludicrously over-egged photo-montage on the front of Wednesday’s Daily Record, it worked a treat.
More intriguingly, though largely ignored by the press and hotly disputed by nay-sayers on Twitter armed with snazzy but inconsequential graphs, a snap ICM poll immediately after the debate seemed to suggest that Yes had actually made a small gain amongst undecideds. Great news, and I’m whooping inwardly with delight as I type this, but I still have the distinct feeling of watching my team scrape through after a penalty shoot-out, having spent the whole match booting the ball into the stand.
So, apart from the obvious lesson that watching political debates on TV is like voluntarily head-butting a porcupine, what did we learn from Tuesday’s confrontation?
- If Kezia Dugdale, the doyenne of the Spin Room, is constantly encountering the currency issue on the doorstep, she must be canvassing a lot of forex traders. The rest of us, frankly, are bored to the point of narcolepsy.
- Salmond patently has a Plan B amongst the options on page 110 of the White Paper, but he can’t explicitly disclose it any more than a poker player can start the betting with his cards pinned to his chest, face up. I’d support a more crowd-pleasing technique for countering Darling’s patronising guff, such as asking him whether he believes any currency arrangement whatsoever can survive in an independent Scotland, or whether we should construct a mediaeval barter system and start stockpiling furs and trinkets.
- Debate Catchphrase Bingo cards urgently need updating to include Darling’s new sound-bite “barriers, borders and boundaries”. However, the game will in any case probably be banned soon, once the authorities realise how many alcoholic poisoning cases resulted from Tuesday’s cliché-fest.
- Alex, if you’re going to skewer Project Fear scaremongering, choose organ transplant availability, or continuing access to BBC programmes (what, people still want that?), or the entire contribution of Gordon Brown, who would be more honest if he gave up speaking in public, and just covered himself with a white bed-sheet and made blood-curdling noises. Don’t waste valuable seconds, and the audience’s patience, on Andy Burnham’s schoolboy gags about driving on the right, or whatever weird space invasion messages Philip Hammond is receiving through his tin-foil hat. The flippancy and satire bit is my job.
- Dinna mess wi’ Bernard Ponsonby.
- Darling doesn’t have a scooby about the Westminster parties’ promised “new powers”, which have now advanced to the stage of not being written on a classy parchment lined with explosives timed to detonate on 19 September. Amidst his frantic gabbling I thought I picked up some vague waffle about “income tax” and possibly “housing benefit”, although by that stage of the debate I’d moved off popcorn and on to hard liquor, so it’s hard to be sure.
- Alistair, those body language training sessions that cost so much? Hope they were on expenses, because otherwise, mate, you were done.
- The abomination of frustration known as “STV Player” is stupendously unfit for purpose, although in a mediaeval barter system it could be exchanged for several tons of manure without anyone noticing.
That was a bulletin from the real world. In mainstream media land, the No campaign is home and hosed, the Yes campaign is mired in despondency, Ian Davidson is busy getting the bayonets out, people can again say “Darling” and “genius” in the same sentence without busting a gut laughing, Salmond is about to get the sack any moment and the Telegraph is preparing an authoritative editorial calling for this silly referendum nonsense to be cancelled.
Actually, that’s fine. Just as triumphalism on the Yes side produces a knot of foreboding in my stomach, triumphalism on the No side makes me intensely relaxed. They think we’re toast, they’re coming to stick a fork in, and they don’t notice they’re only giving us a glimpse of the whites of their eyes.
First they ignored us, then they laughed at us, and now they’ve definitely come to fight us. Remind me, what comes next….?