Screen test: Salmond vs Darling has shown the value of the TV debate



It will be a few days yet before we can say for certain whether the second of the televised duels between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling has had any impact on how the Scots propose to vote in next month’s referendum on independence. The first time around, the viewers’ verdict was that Darling had won, but there was no visible gain for the Better Together campaign. On the contrary, the gap in the polls narrowed.

The second bout, on Monday evening, was seen as a victory for the First Minister. Perhaps that will bring a poll boost for the Yes campaign, but experience tells us not to be surprised if there is no noticeable change in the polls. Anyone who thinks that television debates decide the result of elections should think back to 2010, when Nick Clegg was by common consent the star of the leaders’ debates. Yet come the vote, the number of Liberal Democrat MPs fell.

Some might say that if these debates do not affect the vote, there is no point in holding them. Coming from a politician that would be an understandable reaction, but it would be wrong. The value of these televised debates – indeed, the value of any political debate – lies in how it concentrates minds on the political questions of the day. In the first of the Salmond-Darling debates, the former was caught out by having no clear answer to the major question of what currency an independent Scotland would use. That setback forced him to have an answer ready for the next encounter. Whether or not you think the answer was satisfactory, at least now it is widely understood in Scotland that the question is there, requiring an answer.

Meanwhile, in London, the political leaders are haggling over whether there will be televised debates during the 2015 general election. There are legitimate misgivings about them, particularly that they draw so much publicity that very little else about the campaign gets noticed, but in a democracy, those who aspire to the highest political office must be prepared to argue their case live on television – even if it feels to the participants like a lot of hard work with little to show for it.

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