By Lesley Riddoch

STV's "Scotland Decides" TV debate was a big disappointment for Yes supporters – there's no denying it.  Alex Salmond was off form and curiously slow on his feet.  By contrast the normally soporific Alistair Darling acted like a man possessed. Each man performed against type – and against hype.

SNP supporters expected their leader to simply switch on the vice-like control of proceedings he demonstrates every week in Holyrood – even though this was a debate between equals not a First Minister's showcase.

The wider Yes movement assumed this would finally be the moment for Salmond to do the "vision thing" –shifting the debate to higher ground, neutralising scaremongering over currency, pensions, Europe, highlighting the elitist, insular and unequal nature of life in the UK and laying out his own personal reasons for supporting independence since the days of his youth.  But just like the disappointing official Yes campaign launch last year, lift-off didn't happen and higher ground wasn't reached.

Blow by blow accounts of the two hour debate are aplenty.  But three things stood out for me.

Firstly, Alex Salmond unaccountably made the mistake of fighting on his enemy's preferred turf – not his own.  Clearly the ex-Chancellor was always going to focus on the financial uncertainty of independence.  Salmond needed to have a battalion of answers to the "Plan B" question – not just one.

I expected a robust demonstration of how all "non-negotiable" stances in politics eventually become negotiable, a cheeky question about George Osborne's Plan B and perhaps an announcement that Scotland could set up its own currency -- if the UK Government is determined to damage everyone's fortunes by refusing a shared currency.  None of this "fleshing out" of the currency argument happened.  Perhaps it seemed that if Better Together could roll out their hardy, old perennial arguments, Alex Salmond could roll out the same oft-repeated assertion that a shared currency will simply prevail – over and over again.

Secondly, Salmond failed to home in on some clangers dropped by Darling in response to astute, pointed questions by the debate's moderator.  When Bernard Ponsonby asked the Better Together boss which two powers would definitely come to Scotland in the event of a No vote, Darling's stuttering response "Road tax and some tax-raising powers" was greeted with laughter and howls of derision.  Yet Salmond chose to respond to Darling's personal dig -- "I didn't vote for you but I'm stuck with you" – instead of tackling his far more serious policy error.

Astonishingly the Better Together boss failed to mention the devolution of welfare powers – the new addition to Devo More announced by the three unionist parties earlier that same day.  Unbelievable – and a live demonstration of the fleeting, unconvincing and last-minute nature of Unionist pledges.  What fun could have been had trying to winkle from the evidently un-briefed Darling precisely WHICH welfare powers might be heading north, precisely WHEN and precisely HOW welfare powers could easily be detached piecemeal from the integrated Universal Credit system – unless it's about to implode under the weight of sustained criticism from claimants, Commons Committees and charities alike.

But this promising seam of argument was left completely un-mined.  Salmond needed to set a totally different agenda when he had the opportunity to respond and to cross question.  He didn't.

Thirdly, by contrast, there was too much repetition of the good points that did reach their mark.  Salmond looked to have totally thrown Darling when he quoted his own previous opinion – that a shared currency would be "logical and desirable".  But instead of using that momentary advantage to neutralise the financial argument, demonstrate how politicians wax hot and cold over propositions and move on, Salmond repeated the phrase with increasing bombast, fanning the flames of Darling's currency preoccupation instead of developing his own arguments.

Similarly Salmond's trademark reliance on newspaper cuttings quickly sounded dated, pernickety and over-detailed.  Past opinions and minor technicalities quickly became the fulcrum of this live debate – quite the wrong terrain for an independence cause that relies on a different vision of the future.

Above all there was none of the vision the audience had expected nor any mention of the way the independence campaign has been transformed from a top-down, SNP party-led campaign into a genuinely grassroots, activist-led movement.

Now I'll grant you, in a moment of incredible pressure, simple things can disappear from the front of the mind.  It was always going to be tempting for a former oil economist to dwell on economics.  And it's very, very hard to stare into the camera Bill Clinton-like and talk from the heart.  That kind of openness involves vulnerability --- it's what women voters in particular like about public figures who can do it.

But just as the Iron Lady was not for turning, Alex Salmond is not for appearing vulnerable.  I think he's mistaken the attractive quality of vulnerability for the unattractive quality of weakness. Maybe that can be unravelled before the next BBC debate later this month.

Meantime, Salmond was clearly the victim of over-hyping by the Yes side – and perhaps of some reverse sexism.  After Nicola Sturgeon demolished two Scottish Secretaries on the trot in roughly the same STV format, a subliminal expectation arose –anything Nicola could do, Alex could do better.  Why did anyone think that?  Alex Salmond's difficulties last night confirmed Nicola's exceptional TV debating skills and proved they aren't transferable with status but earned the very hard way.

Those are the downsides.  And yet, just as Salmond's downbeat demeanour was a surprise during the debate, there was an even greater surprise after it.

Amongst undecided voters in a Guardian-commissioned ICM poll, Alex Salmond was deemed the winner.

Of course the main headline picked out by all the papers was the overall verdict -- Alistair Darling won by a margin of 56 to 44.  But the poll found that overall, excluding 'don't knows', support for Yes increased by two per cent over the two-hour debate from 45% before the contest to 47% after.  Amongst voters who'd started out as undecideds, Salmond won by 55-45.

Amongst those who were still undecided at the end of the night, Salmond's margin of victory was even greater -- 74 to 26.  And comparing last night's poll with the previous ICM poll in July, the biggest rise in support for Yes was among women – up by 9% -- meaning greater support for Yes among women (48%) than men (45%) for the first time.

Now, it's true only 500 people were sampled rather than the usual 1000.  And some of those hefty percentages could represent just a very few people.  Recent polls have seen the "undecided" squeezed to just 7% of the total – probably not enough to swing the result.

It's also true that the three young first-time voters who watched the entire debate for the BBC's News Channel along with myself and the Spectator's Alex Massie proclaimed themselves to be "more undecided" at the end than the start.  In a way though, that's encouraging.  Sentient young ‘uns still think there's a convincing pro-Indy argument to be heard – even if they haven't quite heard it yet. Equally – they don't buy the scaremongering, relentless problem-finding and negativity of Better Together even though that has the backing of almost every part of the mainstream press and media.

So who will make that wider case?  Or perhaps more correctly who will get the chance to make that case in a country whose media focuses on party leaders, and forces everyone into stylized, aggressive dog-eat-dog debates?

A couple of thoughts occur.

One-- whilst anoraks and committed voters know about the scandal of food-banks, Trident and the bedroom tax on Westminster's watch and needed to have the argument about Westminster elitism developed, it's entirely possible some undecided Scots heard it for the first time and got it.

Two – there's no point rushing to disown Alex Salmond on the strength of one performance deemed wobbly by the faithful but quite good by some key undecided voters.  We simply wouldn't be here without the man.  If he had not taken over at the helm of the SNP and steered them through two exceptional Holyrood election victories, we simply wouldn't be here today, weeks away from a referendum that's already forced concessions from unionist parties and can still be won.

Alex Salmond has given Scots the opportunity to achieve profound constitutional, political and social change – but that opportunity would have remained hypothetical if ordinary Scots had not seized it, reshaped it and made it their own.  The growth of an energetic campaign outside the SNP and even the formal Yes campaign may be painted as a form of organisational deviation or weakness by opponents and a media obsessed with silver bullets that guarantee change – even when the world is patently transformed rather differently, by profound change that happens a little bit everywhere, generally below the radar.

And that kind of personal, intimate change is constantly happening.  Will it be enough to inch the Yes vote over the line on September 18th?  Who knows?  But it is still as possible today as yesterday – even with STV's hoped for million viewers, many will not have watched and many more will have switched off when the "bickering" became overwhelming – recording that probably as a reflection on politicians in general not the independence campaign in particular.

And of course, as the SNP victories in 2007 and 2011 demonstrate, opinion poll results have previously written off campaigns that went on to win landslides.

So it's worth keeping a sense of proportion – and registering two things – how far the independence movement has come and how normal it is for successful official campaigns to be supported and almost overtaken by the "fringes" they create.

The Catalan President visited Scotland in 2013. At the start of his trip Artur Mas said he was envious of the Scots agreed referendum process with London – in stark contrast to Madrid's refusal to even discuss a Catalan vote.  But when he left a week later, Mas had changed his mind, saying the Scottish independence movement was top-down and party-led with very little grassroots activism – in contrast to the situation in Catalonia where hundreds of thousands of folk held hands in a 400-kilometre-long protest from the Pyrenees in the north along rural roads and hamlets to the provincial capital Barcelona.

Artur Mas had a point then. Not now.

The independence movement was always much larger than one party or one man.  Indeed changing the archaic, passive, top-down, over-professionalised, party-controlled practice of politics in Scotland has been a motivation for many of the folk who've given time, energy and cash to local Yes groups, National Collective (with its edgy, funny and thought-provoking Yestival tour) and the Radical Independence Campaign whose second Mass Canvas is on today.  For tens of thousands of Scots, independence is attractive precisely because it allows Scotland to transform itself – from a tartan version of England into the modern social democracy Scots have been voting for over seven decades.

Last night's debate only demonstrated what those outwith party structures have known for a year.  Online papers like Bella Caledonia and this very news service, prominent campaigners like Elaine C Smith, Pat Kane, Jim Sillars and Dennis Canavan, individual writers like Gerry Hassan, Iain Macwhirter and myself, Women for Independence, Labour for Independence, Green party members like Patrick Harvie and socialists like Colin Fox – not to mention crazy groups like Otters for Yes -- we and many, many more ARE the independence movement – and the business of mediating and enlivening the statistics-bound "messages" of the official Yes campaign and Scottish Government has been our mission since Day One.

So is the Salmond/Darling event a setback?

Contradictory polls make it very hard to know.  But since few outside the SNP and media were depending on Alex Salmond to "seal the deal" in person, very little has really changed.  Thousands of RIC activists are out today helping register voters in Scotland's large housing estates.  The Yes Campaign is working with them to record canvassing returns and help arrange transport for the Big Day.

Local meetings are happening the length and breadth of the country co-ordinated by a Local Yes meetings website.  And a group of broadcasters including myself will kick off Referendum TV on Thursday to create some new perspectives in the Indy debate – a venture dreamed up by independent director Linda Graham and produced by Yes Scotland volunteer and ex BBC Scotland colleague Alison Balharry.

Creative effort and cooperation are everywhere.  It's a case of all hands to the pump – and at long last there are many, many willing hands. Just for once, a Scottish political movement is largely managing to be the change it wants to see.

What we are witnessing is a mass outbreak of independent-mindedness as motivated Yes supporters set up their own online papers, mass canvassing movements, arts festivals, speaking tours, books, badge and T-shirt slogans, local groups and TV channels.  This is the breadth and character of the Yes movement six weeks before the Big Vote.  Few are waiting for instructions to descend from on high – most have devised their own goals, contributions and activities.  In a country as politically passive as Scotland this is the gamechanger.

So yesterday's STV debate represented the end of something – the end of the myth that Alex Salmond or any single individual could, wizard-like, sway the voting intentions of a malleable nation.  It also represented the start of something – the start of recognition that the independence campaign is a mass movement in which the SNP is one important part.

That and a narrowing of the polls -- not bad for a night's work.

Lesley Riddoch, Pat Kane, Iain MacWhirter and Stephen Paton will present a new daily online TV show from 1-2pm from August 7-24th. Watch on Youtube or via


# Will Mcewan 2014-08-06 16:53
You are entirely wrong on the handling of the currency question.
Salmond was completely right in his response and has to stick to it. The minute he doesn't that's when he loses and the mantra that it is sensible and logical and in England and Scotlands's best interest will continue to gain traction.
The fact that "England" would maliciously try to deny Scotland the pound works for us. I have been canvassing for fifty plus years and we are canvassing thrice weekly at the moment. No one has ever asked me about the currency and no one has asked me about the EU. Folk know these are complicated and negotiations will sort them out.
# Breeks 2014-08-06 17:47
It's a measure of the strength of YES arguments that a no-score draw is seen as a disappointment.
I'm not sure Alex Salmond was off form, but seemed distracted by his body language.
There's another perspective too: Ok, Mr Salmond was below parr, but held his ground. By contrast, Darling for once managed to articulate some meaningful comments, but even with a following breeze, he said nothing to seize the initiative. When Better Together can't score on a good day, when can they?
I'm disappointed, but not disheartened. There's a massive difference.
# Langspoon 2014-08-06 18:06
I wish they would drop the bit where they question each other. It always just goes downhill at that point with the talking-over, shouting and interrupting. I can't abide interrupting. It's what turns people off politicians. Politicians need to learn how to behave.

Oh and a good chair would help as well.

They should give the chair green/yellow/red cards and if a speaker breaks the rules (interrupts) repeatedly then they should get sent off for 2 mins and their opponent then has the floor to use as they see fit.
# Gordon Murray 2014-08-06 18:59
I was disappointed by the flat performance of Alex Salmond last night. I was curious that the angry shouty performance of Darling was just what the talking heads had warned Salmond against in the pre debate tasters.
The currency debate he could've stood on its head I agree if he'd asked Darling for his plan B in the event that the UK fiscal deficit that has prompted the neccessity for 'Austerity' with £121bn of borrowing jumped overnight by £145bn of Scottish GDP as well as Scottish contributions to 'essential UK projects' mainly railway projects in and around London.
My elephant in the room is Scotland's share of UK public assets, which are not a kick in the shirt off UK national debt. They are equal and opposite, and in my simple mind tend to cancel each other out, leaving that 'lender of last resort' shenanigans kinda redundant, if we have no debt needing a guarantor?
# Brodie 2014-08-06 19:25
What is the point of raking over all this "point scoring" debate nonsense?

If Scotland votes "no" then we'll be proving the Unionists right - we are "too stupid" to run our own country.

And when the NHS is privatised, students are paying £9,000 a year for university, there's a foodbank on every High Street, and we're all working until we drop, they can think really hard and work out if voting "no" was the best idea after all.

If we've voted to be the serfs in their money-making plutocracy we deserve everything we get.

There can be no more moaning about "Westminster millionaires bleeding Scotland dry".

The moaning may continue but I for one won't be listening any more.

We'll have had our chance - and blown it.
# gus1940 2014-08-06 19:25
The biggest problem with last night's debate and the previous STV ones with Nicola is the format which inevitably leads to an interuption and shouting fest if not properly controlled by the chairman. Ponsonby pointedly failed to control Darling's well rehearsed and amateurish uncharacteristi c ranting.

In my opinion the only satisfactory debate format is the QT one with a strong fair chairman and sensible questions (not like some of the nonsense spouted by last night's audience) coming from a balanced and informed audience.

The chairman must be strong enough to stop panellists ignoring the question and going off at a tangent with a pre-rehearsed political speech.

My panel would be 3 a side:-

YES - Alex Salmond and any 2 from Nicola, Lesley Riddoch, Denis Canavan, Ian McWhirter, Stewart Hosie, John Swinney and Patrick Harvie.

NO - Darling and any 2 from Johann Lamont, Curran, Murphy, Sarwar, Alexander, Cochrane, & Gardham.
# Breeks 2014-08-06 21:41
I disagree. For a fresh perspective, the debate should be structured along governmental portfolios; defence, health, welfare, education, industry etc, with both sides giving making their case portfolio by portfolio, then cross examining the other.
I don't actually care if there's an audience, but 2, or 3 aside teams might work.
It would need a chairman with a firm hand, and have no connection with the BBC.
# forrabest 2014-08-06 19:32
Excellent analysis indeed. Agree with the points you make. But actually, the more I see or hear the FM 'off form' the more I like him. It was good to see the contrast between Darling - hysterical, not entirely truthful and almost spitting with hatred and the 'quiet man' routine of FM. All is not lost by any means.
# tartanfever 2014-08-06 20:05
The debate and media reaction were a complete set up.

The headlines were pre written, the poll ignored. The set up of the debate was deliberate to hamper progressive discussion, just sticking to the same weary arguments and mud slinging from Better Together. Their approach is simple - mud sling, interrupt and reduce debate to a bun fight.

They don't have a positive message to put forward therefore their only tactic is to make sure Yes don't get to put forward their positive messages.

The BBC also showed their hand. Now in the referendum period where impartiality is being observed, they have now decided to show bias by proxy - reporting the anti-independence stance of newspapers.

James Cook had great delight telling us all the newspapers saw Salmond lose. It matches up with the BBC website and their recent new addition to the news pages of giving free run to covering the news headlines of all the daily editions.
# Breeks 2014-08-07 08:20
Always prudent to know your enemy, but I no longer read or listen to the MSM, other than an occassional sortie with a specific purpose beforehand.
To my mind, the media has sold out its integrity, and has been cheap and tawdry in doing it. Not just rotten, but simply bad and deeply boring.
So grim in fact, I'd rather watch Eastenders.
# Willow 2014-08-06 20:24
I have been asked about the currency by old folk who use the msm for info. They just need the correct information to understand. I hope in future debates the reasons for a currency union are made clearer.

The FM should have quizzed Darling on these new so called powers.

Also it's about time Darling was asked what Scottish Labours currency policy is. They don't have a plan A let alone a plan B. Will Darling be sitting at Camerons side during negotiations? That's what he's doing now.

There's loads of meetings, I'd encourage everyone to invite undecideds along and pass on this link.

Also the BBC won't let me post this handy link on their website, others might want to try, I rarely go there.
# WRH2 2014-08-06 22:04
The format was all wrong and didn't allow time to properly develop the arguments. This style of debate comes from the Kennedy Nixon era which is now over 50 years old. Surely someone could come up with something fresher than this. It also tried to cover far too much ground and achieved very little as a result. I agree with gus1940 about the poor quality of some questions from the audience. In fact I recall two that weren't questions at all but just abuse flung at Alex and Ponsonby should have pointed that out and asked the audience to desist from simply making derogatory remarks. Where I do agree with Lesley is that this whole debate has moved out of the rarified political arena and into the hands of the people. That's as it should be for such and important decision.
# Richard Scott 2014-08-06 23:00
I think that as a Yes supporter, I had expectations about Salmond giving Darling a (metaphorical) doing. That would have gratified me. But the only important point is - would it have gained us more votes? On reflection, and in the cold light of day, I don't really think it would. Salmond's approach does, if we are to believe the post-debate polls, seem to have won over some DKs.
So I am content to be a little disappointed if the result is that the Yes vote has increased. I would suggest that he develops a more comprehensive answer to the currency issue, but then what do I know? Salmond is doing OK and as Lesley says, he is only one part of this campaign, albeit an important part.
# cuckooshoe 2014-08-07 00:04
My objection to the STV format is Bernard Ponsonby asking a different question to each person. He should ask the same question to the both of them, and allow each the right of reply. This tactic is used a lot by presenters, and it is not condusive to debate.
# Jacque De Molay 2014-08-07 04:25

A well written article and I think the core message is that WE have to win the debate as a grassroots movement to ensure we build the right kind of Scotland later.

We nene to continue building on the concept of what unites us instead of Party divisions.
In working with all those different groups I now realise how petty the UK form of politics has become.
From businessfor Scotland to Radical Independence Collective the clear message is working together to build a Fairer Scotland.

In comparison to the grassroots unity the traditional Party politics looks so tribal.

I want to win my fellow Scots over and work with them NOT achieve a win.
The real winners will be those in greatest need of change and help in society.
# UpSpake 2014-08-07 07:34
Let's talk currency. The remnants of the UK wish to keep the pound at Scotland's expense. They have already agreed to assume all of the debt, they ran it up after all. Scotland doesn't need their second hand cast off assets or guns that don't work. We leave the tired old Union, debt free.
For those who wish Scotland to join the EU then it is a condition of doing so that we have our own currency and Central Bank. Easy peasy, we create both - Now!.
So, by the time there is another debate, Salmond merely removes a Scots Merk note from his pocket when Darling asks what his Plan B is.
For those like myself, who wish to have nothing whatsoever to do with the EU we will need a currency and CB too.
# Brodie 2014-08-07 10:27
It's time for Alex to get down to London to make the THE WESTMINTER DECLARATION:

"In light of the hostile act by Her Majesty's Imperial Government to deny the Scottish people their democratic right to use the Pound Sterling as part of a mutually-beneficial currency union, I, as First Minister of Scotland, hereby declare that an independent Scotland will take no share of the National Debt of the United Kingdom after independence on March 24, 2016.

"From that day on the Sovereign Scottish Nation will use their own currency to be known as The Scottish Pound, underpinned by the Economic Assets of the Sovereign Scottish Nation and centrally managed by a Scottish Monetary Authority.

"The SMA shall, by law, hold large reserves of tradable international currencies to mitigate against any and all systemic liquidity shortages that may undermine public confidence in The Scottish Pound and, by extension, the Scottish Banking System.

That is all."
# Dundonian West 2014-08-07 10:31
NEW Citizen type TV TODAY--begining 1pm.
Daily, Mon--Fri 1pm.
"Lesley Riddoch and Iain MacWhirter welcome guests to the first Referendum TV Live show.
Guests include best selling author Sarah Sheridan; the Orc Mischief a four-piece comedy band; Polish actor Tomek Borkowy; and Ivan and Ewa McKee."

One for a share and placing into Bookmark/Favourites
# andy-cap 2014-08-07 10:59
The fiercely anti-independence and Tory/London owned Daily Record tries its best today to smear Alex Salmond by claiming a top SNP member said AS blew the debate. No names or back ups are revealed, just unionist propaganda.The Record then goes on to give Alistair Darling, a double page spread to criticise Alex Salmonds answers in the debate. God help AS when the next debate takes place at the end of the month at the BBC, who'll rig the event for sure.
# WRH2 2014-08-07 11:39
O/T. Just seen the latest stunt. 200 "celebs" sign letter to convince us they love us and want to stay together. There is reference to our country and we all know how that translates. I think any gains the Nos thought they had from the debate has just been scuppered. This is not going down well on comments on the Herald. At best its irrelevant and at worst really insulting.
# Muscleguy 2014-08-07 12:15
I'm trying to watch, it is past 1pm but all I get is 'please stand by, starting soon'.

Technical fail.
# millie 2014-08-07 12:30
Just watched BBC national lunchtime news- all media guns are now out for Alex Salmond.

Could Someone at the BBC please inform Lorna Gordon that NO-ONE CAN PREVENT SCOTLAND FROM USING THE POUND. We wouldn’t want the BBC to be accused off misleading the public would we?
# gus1940 2014-08-07 18:11
Tonight's Misreporting Scotland broke all records for Unionist bias.

We had about 10 minutes of a succession of anti-Independence propaganda stories.

It would appear that with the Games out of the way they are now shamelessly moving into top gear with their bias.
# neoloon 2014-08-07 17:02
The people of Scotland will win it for Yes - not any single politician; not any single political party.
# kenneth_clark336 2014-08-10 19:32
A lot has been made of Alex Salmond's performance. I know very few people who watch FMQ's live and thought the debate would give them the opportunity to see the cold fire and steel of the man when dealing with the unionist clique on Thursdays. I didn't see it last week, but understand why Alex chose to keep cool. Alex's great strength is that he is a real person, one which Scots appreciate. I've heard talk of body language coaches for him. If true, I despair. Leave that sort of nonsense to the unionists. I don't see why the currency issue should be an Achilles heel for Salmond. As you state Lesley, explaining their intentions to businesses in the British Isles should be a weight heavy enough to drown Darling and his cohorts. I don't know what format the BBC will use, but I would like Alex to insist that Darling turns to face the audience in the studio and at home and do just that. Of course we need a strong chairperson to make it happen. I live in hope.

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