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Compelling case for a referendum TV debate

So far, for all sorts of reasons, the great independence debate has been rather confused and unedifying.

As the time for the crucial vote nears, there will be a need for clarity and understanding. The best way to concentrate voters' minds, and to explore the issues thoroughly in an available, direct and impactful way would surely be to have a series of televised leaders' debates in the immediate run-up to next year's referendum.

A precedent of a kind was set prior to the last UK General Election, when David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown took part in three 90-minute leaders' debates, broadcast by the BBC, ITV and Sky.

If, in the weeks before the independence referendum, a similar series of three debates were to be held – in Scotland only, of course – many voting intentions might be confirmed but, equally and significantly, some might well be changed. While many minds would already have been made up, many more would surely be open to persuasion. As a print journalist of many years' standing I don't particularly like admitting this, but televised debates can have an extraordinarily powerful impact.

There would need to be a prior debate about the format of the televised debates. I'd propose two debates between the main players – David Cameron and Alex Salmond. In between there could be a debate between the two deputies, Nick Clegg and Nicola Sturgeon.

The precise arrangements could be discussed long and hard until an agreement acceptable to both sides was reached. My inclination would be for one moderator, someone of authority and impeccable neutrality, for all three debates. This would perhaps be a senior diplomat or a journalist from abroad. The actual questions could be sent in by members of the Scottish public – and from them, the final choice could be made by a panel of journalists and academics.

The debates would be seen to be fairly conducted. They would be balanced and would surely elevate the overall argument to a level above the day-to-day scrapping of the official Yes and No campaigns. As the respective leaders of the UK and Scottish Governments, Messrs Cameron and Salmond would be the obvious, and necessary, recipients of what I hope would be a series of pertinent and challenging questions. The answers from the two leaders might well shape the nature of the discussion in the endgame, the crucial final days before the referendum.

It's just possible that Mr Salmond might have a slight advantage in this proposed scheme because independence has been, since he was a boy, his raison d'etre. It has been the aim of his entire political career, the great overriding focus of his life in politics; he has lived and breathed and thought it for many years. Whereas for Mr Cameron the issue of Scottish independence has been, no doubt, somewhat peripheral – till now, that is. But as Prime Minister of the UK he has recently insisted he is passionate about continuing the Union. The two debates would test his conviction, and give him the chance to defend the Union as if his very life depended on it.

The three televised debates in 2010 surprised many people in that Mr Clegg was generally held to have done significantly better in the first two, though Mr Cameron recovered somewhat in the third one. Mr Brown did not do very well, though even so his contributions were better than many had predicted. Mr Clegg's subsequent performance in Government perhaps suggests the debates were not good indicators of what would transpire after the election. But a General Election is about many issues; the referendum is about just one. That said, this one issue – Scottish independence – is a complex one. There is infinite detail.

Scottish voters would greatly appreciate from the proposed quartet of senior politicians a clear indication not just of their vision, but also of their mastery of detail. To put it another way, the fine print may not always be crucial; but it assuredly will be when this momentous democratic decision is imminent.

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