Asked politely not to talk over each other for the next 70 minutes, the leaders of Scotland’s five largest parties all agreed – and for the first 40 minutes or so, they mostly behaved themselves.
Their last debate before Thursday’s elections began with the all-engulfing Covid-19 response and incipient recovery, moved into the weeds of social care policy, and then detoured via a bizarre question on a mooted Royal Yacht to the constitutional question, at which point the evening’s politesse disintegrated.
None of those on stage said anything deeply surprising, something none of them will count as a personal failure. What really matters is the impression they’ll leave in the minds of the electorate. So with their final chance, what kind of performances did they give?
Nicola Sturgeon, SNP
The incumbent first minister is renowned for her ability to hold it together on a debate stage, and essentially succeeded in the same feat this time around. Still, she found herself in a few awkward spots, many of them unavoidable at this point.
“Let’s not forget that out of the trauma of the Second World War,” she said early on, “the National Health Service was born” – only to be challenged on why it took a pandemic to force the improvements she and her party are promising when they’ve been running the country for years.
It was clear she had prepared to head off that particular line of attack by describing her own answers as “candid”, a word she carefully deployed when talking about the mistakes of the pandemic and the possibility of raising taxes in the next parliament.
But even though she has a lot to answer for after more than a decade at the top of the Scottish power elite, Ms Sturgeon only found herself held close to the fire on independence, a subject where she could not be more practiced. Insisting she would not act precipitately and insist on a referendum as soon as possible – instead promising to make the nationalist case via “patient persuasion” – she said voters who support her but don’t want a second referendum should be “safe in the knowledge that getting us through this crisis is my priority”.
Whether the voters in question will believe her is another matter.
Douglas Ross, Conservatives
As an ambassador for Boris Johnson’s government and a Westminster MP to boot, Douglas Ross is not in a comfortable position – not given the prime minister’s spectacular unpopularity in Scotland and the fallout from Brexit, which he was reminded by the moderator has hit Scottish food and drink exporters hard.
“Would you like to apologise to those, particularly in the fishing industry, who were promised a sea of opportunity?”, he was asked; he didn’t say no, but nor did he apologise, saying instead that the government needs to “work with” them. Many of his answers were just as circuitous. Why not guarantee a minimum income for carers, he was asked “Because we’ve got to look at that in the round,” came the reply.
Clearly, he was waiting for his chance to drag Ms Sturgeon into an independence brawl, and when he finally got his chance, he went in hard on the idea that if Mr Johnson will not grant the section 30 order she needs for a full-blown referendum, she and her party will hold a “wildcat” one of their own. This hardly rattled her, as all she needed to say in response was “no”; the real question, as with all things independence, is which leader voters want to believe.
A slightly more subtle point he managed to push was that given the first minister has spent her career pursuing the independence cause in one way or another, she is surprisingly evasive when asked about the most basic issues that would confront a newly independent country. To the extent this is true, it’ll be a serious problem for any future independence campaign.
But the obstacle Mr Ross ran into again was that Ms Sturgeon is just about good enough under pressure that where she does become evasive or vague, she still comes across as more pragmatic than furtive. If Mr Ross’s aim was to make the first minister seem suspect in her motives, he didn’t get far.
Patrick Harvie, Scottish Greens
Sometimes coming off almost jittery, the joint leader of the Scottish Greens positioned himself as an ideological cheerleader for independence who had no patience for the moderating impulses of the nationalists actually running the country.
This didn’t help Douglas Ross in his effort to frame Ms Sturgeon as Machiavellian, and it actually seemed to take pressure off her – this during what might have been the other parties’ last chance to tarnish her as an insatiable nationalist.
As he explained it from his lectern, Mr Harvie’s zeal for independence is actually rooted in internationalism. He waxed mournfully about how, in 1945, a project commenced on the European continent that saved generations of young people being sent to the trenches to kill each other, and raged that Scotland had been taken out of it.
He told the story with passion and emotion. But when asked about what currency an independent Scotland would use, he sounded a note of go-it-alone optimism: “The purpose of independence is about giving Scotland the ability to make big economic choices...and without an independent currency, I think you lack the ability to make those decisions.”
Striking out much more boldly than the SNP, those words could’ve been ripped from the mouth of Michael Gove in the summer of 2016.
Mr Harvie actually introduced the Brexit-independence comparison himself at one point, albeit the other way round, insisting that the 2014 independence case was far more specific than the one made for Brexit two years later. Pushed on whether the message of “take back control” wasn’t just a little too similar for comfort, he insisted the two had nothing in common.
Willie Rennie, Liberal Democrats
By far the most relaxed of the leaders both physically and vocally, Mr Rennie also had the least to lose given how low the expectations for his party currently are.
Pointing to the many ways the SNP have supposedly let Scotland down by their own standards – particularly on health and education – he time and again drove home his point that a pro-independence majority would waste the post-Covid recovery period by obsessing over the constitutional question.
Instead, he seemed to be arguing, this is a time for technocratic skill and political moderation as Scotland’s public systems are restored and rebuilt. This zeal for level-headedness sits rather oddly with the Liberal Democrats’ penchant for big ideas, not least their current signature proposal of a universal basic income. Given the chance to bang that drum, Mr Rennie again to caution and patience. “An awful lot of work needs to be done to make sure that can be implemented effectively.”
If the Lib Dems are going to stand out (and climb out of the single digits in the polls), they’ll need to punch harder than that.
The best line Mr Rennie landed all night was probably on independence, where he tried to speak for the millions of viewers sitting dutifully through the Sturgeon-Ross sniping match. “I don’t want this to be the argument for the next five years,” he declared mournfully. But as with most of the night, he forgot to immediately and explicitly remind everyone they could vote Liberal Democrat instead.
Anas Sarwar, Labour
Anas Sawar has only been in the job for two months, but he looks just as assured as Douglas Ross – that is, steady on his feet but detectably nervous under pressure. But he is outclassed by Mr Ross when it comes to actual debating. He didn’t manage to put the current first minister under as much pressure as he wanted: one of his rehearsed anti-Sturgeon lines, “you can’t lead the recovery and lead half the country at the same time”, made less sense in the room than it must have on paper, and it didn’t turn the discussion his way.
At one point, he used a chance to weigh in on independence to lay into Mr Ross. “He’s only interested in saving his skin,” he said, “not saving the union”. A sharp line, maybe – but all it really did was give Ms Sturgeon a break just as the evening’s hardline unionist was starting to tangle her up.
His real problem, it must be said, isn’t of his own making. Scottish Labour is trying to claw its way back to centre stage after years adrift, and hasn’t yet been able to stake out a patch of its own. But on a crowded stage where all the parties are forced to come up with their own triangulation between Scottish, UK-wide and international issues, Mr Sarwar delivered nothing distinctive.
When he insisted that “I don’t care if someone votes yes or no”, he probably meant to sound daring and assertive – but instead, he sounded to be backing away from the biggest question in Scotland, one that Labour has long struggled to handle.