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STV Debate Analysis: Off The Ball
The FM embodied a tired and distracted government in tonight's STV debate.
Watching the second leaders debate of the Holyrood campaign I was reminded of a series of conversations I had with US Democratic debate experts about how best to prepare for these TV events.
One of the lessons they stressed over and over again was about how difficult it is for the debater who won the first debate to also win the second. Partly this is because the referees on the night, the commentators, find it boring to tell the same story as last time. Really though it is that, as a participant in these events, it takes all your ambition and adrenaline to put in a winning performance. Having achieved that once, that sense of being up for the fight is replaced with a sense of relief. It’s hard to motivate yourself and your team all over again. You’ve put all your effort into delivering your greatest hits and are left performing your B-sides.
Sarwar, having been judged by commentators as the winner of the BBC debate, did well to find a new way to deliver his central message in a way that defined him against his main competitors. His “a plague on both your houses” approach is a smart attempt to try to create an anti-politics I Agree With Nick style moment.
In some ways it is easier for those that were seen as losers or lacklustre in the first debate and feel they have something to prove. We saw that desire to recalibrate and reinvgorate in the performances of Sturgeon and Ross in this debate.
Ross was a more thoughtful, but quieter presence tonight after taking criticism for misjudging his tone in the last debate. He had a rightly uncomfortable moment under questioning from Harvie on travellers and was obviously trying to sand down rough edges that have snagged with voters in focus groups. For me, his change in tone questioning Nicola Sturgeon felt like a gear crunch as his campaign slows down and changes direction. There was an unforced error from Sturgeon when Ross questioned her about the SNP overseeing the worst drugs deaths in Europe:
On a political level, this is an admission of distraction, an acknowledgement that government has limited bandwidth from a First Minister who now claims she can oversee recovery from unprecedented health and economic crises while also creating the infrastructure of a new state. But on a human level, look again at her language:
“I think we took our eye off the ball”
We are talking about hundreds of lost lives here. People are dead who had so much to offer their families, their communities, their country. This wasn’t an absent-minded slip-up, it wasn’t a momentary lapse, it wasn’t a casual mistake. It was a catastrophe. People are dead because of her failure.
Nicola Sturgeon seemed like a weary incumbent in the first debate. She had little to say about her record and allowed herself to be boxed into defending the past 14 years rather than talking about the future. She tried to change that tone by talking about her future offer in her opening statement but as the debate went on she was right back to excusing what she hasn’t done and complaining about what she couldn’t do.
She used her cross-examination to demand more welfare powers even while she delays using the ones she already has. Rennie challenged her failure on what she said was her personal defining mission, the thing she wanted us to judge her on above all else: closing the attainment gap. “We haven’t done that yet,” she shrugged.
Pressed by Sarwar on an issue he has been doggedly pursuing for years now: the scandal of the water system that resulted in sickness and death at the new children’s hospital in Glasgow. The First Minister’s response was more empathetic than the last debate when she complained that getting care right for people dying of cancer takes time. But again tonight she sounded more like a manager explaining why things weren’t better than a leader setting out how they can be better. Offering the excuse that she didn’t personally see the reports offered Sarwar the chance to sum up the theme of the night, and the character of the First Minister’s time in office:
“Isn’t there a pattern here: big failure, denial, group secrecy and no-one takes responsibility? The next five years have to be better than that.”
It must be hard for Nicola Sturgeon to motivate herself for these debates. She has very little to prove and will feel that she knows all the cheat codes (eg talking out Willie Rennie’s time as she has done in STV debates before). But her performance typified the feel of this SNP government: self-centred, tired, lacking new ideas. A mixture of her joyless campaign and storing up a public spending crisis by making unfunded election promises has made me think this is a FM who is running down the clock on her time in office. Tonight did nothing to change that suspicion.
Meanwhile in the 14th Century
In the debate, long-standing apologist for nationalism, Patrick Harvie kept saying that another referendum would not be divisive. He makes that claim the day after the former First Minister of Scotland, the man Harvie and the SNP asked us to follow into an independent Scotland, published this video. This isn’t a video prepared by an unwashed QAnon gamer who still lives with his mum. It was promoted by Nicola Sturgeon’s old head of digital strategy. Recalling a bloody medieval battle against the English, it is pure nationalism, red in tooth and claw:
Alba didn’t create this strain of intolerant, hateful politics. Nationalism did.
What we watch in the video isn’t new. Two years ago actor Angus McFadyen, who narrates the film, was musing about English people living in Scotland and how we should:
“show them what it feels like to be an unwanted immigrant”, adding “because if it’s a war they want, it’s a war they shall get”.
In the rest of the UK, a prominent actor making such comments about an immigrant community would be cancelled. In Scotland we barely notice it.
There has always been an intolerant dog whistle that seeks to other the English and paint opponents of the SNP inside Scotland as traitors. Talking about “uniting the clans” and “breaking the spine of English superiority” is not so much a dog whistle, it’s more like screaming Fenton’s name.
Those behind this messaging didn’t suddenly develop ugly politics when they left the SNP a few days ago. Alba has shone a light on a hatefulness that has gone unchallenged by otherwise decent people within the SNP. However painful the reckoning my party has had with extremists and racists in our ranks, I’m glad we have had it because I don’t want their votes or their voices in support of Labour.
It’s high time the SNP leadership showed the same commitment to cleaning up their politics.