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Televised debate is a beauty contest minus the swimsuits

AT the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow the halls and studios are full of actors, musicians, singers, and any number of other budding creative forces.

With alumni including James McAvoy, Isobel Buchanan and Kate Dickie, the school is not a forbidding, luvvie kind of place, being more Fame than first night at the Royal Opera House. That said, one would not be expelled for use of the word "darling". Planting kisses on both cheeks by way of a greeting is near as darn it comme il faut.

Well, you can forget any of that malarkey come August 5.

In the first week of August, the Royal Conservatoire will play host to the first, live televised debate between the leaders of the Yes and No campaigns.

The venue will doubtless end

an air of class to the clash between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling. Given the increasingly bad-tempered tone of proceedings, one had feared that this landmark event

would take place in some backsteet pub where the floor was covered in spit, sawdust and molars, and where the next act on the bill was a cage fight.

Strange that a boxing venue was not chosen. After all, both sides have been indulging in the pugilistic practice of trying to psych each other out on these televised debates since before the date for the independence referendum was even announced. First, Mr Salmond challenged David Cameron to a square go but was rebuffed. The FM/PM bout was not to be. Mr Darling, former heavyweight in a Labour cabinet of yesteryear turned middleweight leader of Better Together, asked repeatedly for a chance to be a contender. Yet the First Minister remained unmoved, holding out for a UK title fight with the prime minister as his right.

Now, in what is, depending on your point of view, either a cave-in or a canny move to position himself as the plucky up and comer, Mr Salmond has said yes to STV on August 5. And mibbe he will say aye to the BBC on August 12 as well. No bookings are being taken for after September 18. This is a one-month, one-time only deal, though promoters of the pro-independence cause are doubtless reserving the right to ask for a comeback bout should the result not go their way.

So the Royal Conservatoire in August 5, 2014, it is. The date has been chosen to avoid a clash with the end of the Commonwealth Games on August 3, and events marking the start of the First World War on August 4. A busy old week, then, and an emotional one for many as well. So it remains to be seen, particularly given the length of the campaign so far, whether many Scots will be in the mood for a televised debate. Certainly, it is Christmas and Hallowe'en combined for the media, ever keen for any spectacle that livens matters up, but one wonders how many voters will tune in and how many will drop out. Especially when they see it is not a cage fight (now that would be a ratings hit…).

The STV programme will be two hours in duration, a long time in broadcasting, and questions will be invited from the 350-strong audience in the hall. There is nothing startling about the set-up, nor is there meant to be. Horses of a skittery disposition can rest easy. We are not likely to see a repeat of the now notorious Sturgeon-Lamont brawl. Like much of the broadcasting during this long campaign, that encounter generated enough heat to put the greedy energy companies out of business while providing an amount of light that would struggle to illuminate an ant's lantern.

If the August 5 encounter does the same it will lead many to ask,

not for the first time, why such emphasis has been placed on televised debates. What, after all, is the point of this encounter? What, conceivably, could either leader say that will swing undecided voters? Is this not just a circus to amuse voters tiring of the stale bread of everyday campaigning?

It is certainly the latter. Televised debates, from Nixon-Kennedy onwards, have been afforded undue importance. Unless the protagonists are relative unknowns, there are no big swings in opinion. Disastrous performances can prompt poll numbers to plummet, as with Obama in Denver in 2012, but the dip need not last for long and can be fixed in the next encounter. With Messrs Salmond and Darling, viewers will see two seasoned debaters, both veterans of the Westminster bear pit, going through their oft rehearsed paces. As exciting television goes, it could make the old testcard look like the moon landing.

We can already guess at the direction of the debate from the first reactions of the two campaigns to a date being set. The No campaign said it was an opportunity for the First Minister to answer questions on the pound, pensions, and public services (wot, no pandas on the alliterative list?) that "he has spent the last two years dodging".

The Yes side, meanwhile, are positioning Mr Darling as a "shield" for a Tory premier too feart to turn up. There we have it, then: it is the hostage versus the hot air merchant. Let the posters be printed and the barkers be given their lines.

It is unlikely either politician can say much to bring undecided voters to their side in one verbal swoop. A televised debate is purely a beauty contest minus the swimsuits; a chance for voters to have their assumptions confirmed, not overturned. But there is a more pressing reason to look askance at these debates and wonder why anyone should be bothered one way or another. As a reflection of the argument going on out there - on the streets, in the halls, in newspaper letters pages, in sitting rooms, in offices - such televised encounters are a screaming irrelevance.

If one wishes to take the temperature of the campaigns and receive a more telling glimpse of Scotland today, an undecided voter would do better to read the

Electoral Commission's report on donations to the pro-independence and anti-independence campaigns. This reveals Scotland to be a very wealthy nation, if one judges such things on the willingness and financial ability of individuals to give extremely large sums to political causes. It also shows a Scotland still divided between old money (landowners and business folk) and new (authors and lottery winners). For my dosh, this list of donors will do more to make up minds than any televised debate. Like much else in politics, this referendum is shaping up to be a case of follow the money.

Now, if the encounter on August 5 could hold a mirror up to modern Scotland in the same way as the Electoral Commission has done it would be worth catching. But even the Electoral Commission report is lacking in one crucial respect.

Only gifts of more than £7,500 need to be declared publicly, so we do not know the extent to which other, smaller donors have contributed. To that extent, the people have not spoken. They will do so on S

eptember 18. Until then, all the rest is advertising to the converted.

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