2 February 2014

Can Cameron lose a debate against Eck?

Should David Cameron participate in a debate against Alex Salmond before the referendum campaign closes? Will he? Today, a poll indicates that 67% of Scots are in favour of such a debate. To date, the balance of probabilities has seemed to suggest that no debate will take place.  

The script explaining why writes itself. The unpopularity of the Tory-led Westminster government represents one of the big challenges for Better Together across much (but not all) of the country.  If Yes Scotland can transform the Scottish anti-Tory coalition into a pro-independence coalition, the Union is stuffed.

By contrast, the overwhelming majority of Scottish Conservative voters can be solidly relied upon to reject the SNP's constitutional project, come what may. Without any disrespect to them, Better Together can afford to ignore this section of the electorate most of the time. Getting the vote out on polling day will be important, but convincing these folk isn't a priority.  While the Aberdeenshire, Perthshire or Borderer Tory might grouse about Cameron's cowardice in refusing to put himself to the touch in defence of the Union he believes in, this disgruntlement is profoundly unlikely to move them from the No to the Yes column. So who cares?

By contrast, making Cameron the late face and spokesman for the Union in a critical debate is calculated to alienate a vital, wavering section of the electorate who'd never dream of supporting him in their lifetimes. Tory money, Labour activism: that was the deal.  On this vision, the main virtue of the Conservative involvement in the constitutional debate is stealth.  Cameron's participation in any debate would blow that steady strategy to bits.  

An audacious, but risky gambit and one that Better Together may not be able to afford, if the polls narrow towards the end of the campaign.  Although the media love them, the evidence is rather more ambivalent about the impact of debates on voter behaviour. Do they change people's minds? Where one candidate or party wins by a landslide, we can afford to be a bit cavalier about the impact of such televisual events. Not so if the race looks remotely like coming down to a few percentage points one way or t'other.  All good, cautious reasons for Cameron not to debate against the Maximum Eck.

Largely sharing this logic, Alex Massie has nevertheless argued the all into the valley of death case for Cameron to debate the First Minister over the course of the referendum campaign. Surely it is pretty pitiful for a fellow to say that every fibre will be strained in the United Kingdom's defence, but demur from actually making that case yourself to your fellow citizens? It looks craven, and weak, and worse, it undermines a key plank of the Unionist project. 

As Dame Bella of Doily explained in her maiden speech to the House of Lords this week, the idea that the referendum is an issue for Scots only sits uncomfortably beside the togetherness espoused by those supporting a No vote.  In defence of Cameron's stance, various folk have suggested that Eck is attempting to transform the referendum into a snarling, ethnically charged battle between Scotland and England. A simpler explanation might be that the choice is, to some extent, between concurrent administration of the country by Prime Ministers and First Ministers, or Scottish politicians which we can peeble to our hearts content.  

I wonder, though, if there are other good reasons why Cameron ought to put aside his qualms and have a crack at Salmond. Given how low expectations are about Cameron's performance in an #indyref debate against Eck, can the PM really lose?

Reason one: the idea folk will conveniently forget that they are governed by Tories at the UK level if Cameron avoids putting his phizog on telly is ludicrous.  If that fact becomes salient for a significant section of the electorate in the referendum debate - and there are signs that it has already become so - the unpopularity of the Prime Minister and his colleagues can't be avoided. It isn't obvious that a debate could further decrease the regard with which the Conservatives are held north of the Tweed. Not debating seems to secure few advantages.

On the other hand, there is a reasonable worry that the debate would depict the constitutional choices in a way uncongenial to the Labour-dominated forces of Better Together. Although a number of pro-independence folk doubtless have their problems with the first minister, I fancy that the gap of sentiment if not of ideology separating Salmond from them is less than divides your pro-Union Labour voter from Cameron. In a calculated way, recognising this fact is doubtless a reason to refuse to participate. But pace Massie, it still looks pitiful.  People like a trier. 

Reason two: The received wisdom is that Eck would merrily pulp Cameron in any debate. I'm not so sure. And if those expectations of a pulping are not realised, the benefits break entirely Cameron's way. In the American scene, more practised in these sort of head-to-head arguments, they've become pass masters of managing expectations. Democratic spinners bigging up their opponent's credentials, Republicans emphasising the eloquence and experience of their opposite number. Why? Because if you go into these things as the overwhelming favourite, there's a serious risk that you underwhelm, your opponent does better than expected, and you end up with bad headlines, and their unexpected cogency becomes a "game changer". At least in the headlines, in the last days of the campaign.   

If the Salmond vs Cameron debate broke along these lines, you can imagine the copy: "We all expected a Salmond knockout. But the First Minister struggled to land the killer blow last night as the Prime Minister came out fighting in a well-prepared and well-pitched plea for Scots to "stay with us". "An assured performance from Cameron, which surprised many observers." "After a difficult week in Westminster, the Prime Minister has seized back the momentum this week in a commanding performance in Scotland, taking the battle to the separatist-in-chief Alex Salmond, leaving the Chief Puddin' red-faced again and again."  Etcetera, etcetera.  Expectations about Cameron's performance are so low, I struggle to see how he can lose.

Cameron would also want to take an off piste approach to preparing his lines of argument. Wargame unanticipated angles Salmond won't be prepared for. Mix it up. Unless truly calamitous, Cameron can rely on a sympathetic hearing from many of the nationals, who can be expected to leap on anything less than a wholesale Eckly demolition as a set-back and a calamity for the Nats. 

More importantly, perhaps, showing a bit of grit may be in Cameron's own domestic interests. The Prime Minister is getting a troubling reputation for invertibracy, a spammy quality. Giving Eck an even modest thwapping on his own turf can only play well in the London presses, which are still in the grip of the idea that "wily" Salmond represents some mystically forceful character.  There would be no point in debating anything with wee Johann Lamont.  If he comes out unscathed and unscarred against Salmond - or at least having dealt and earned a few scrapes - there's a bit of kudos in that for a plastic PM striving to give his gelatinous form more substance.   

And lastly, a debate between the two would be fun. Shouldn't constitutional politics be fun too? It would also represent an opportunity to bring the folk of these islands together, a set-piece moment for folk in England, Wales, Norn Iron and Scotland to hear and understand the arguments both for and against the idea of Scottish independence and continuing Union. Surely a good unionist should want nothing less. 


  1. Interesting analysis from LPW. Particularly the point about expectations. But there is a sense in which the reasoning of reason one applies to reason two in that we know the media will pronounce Cameron the winner - or Salmond the loser - regardless of what actually happens in the debate. Worrying about how the media will portray the contest is pointless.

    So why is this not a persuasive case for Cameron agreeing to meet Salmond head-to-head? If he knows that he will have the unquestioning support of the media, why doesn't he just go for it?

    In part this is doubtless because he can only rely on the mainstream media. Increasingly, it is online news, blogs and social media that is dominating the debate. And that arena is massively dominated by pro-independence campaigners. So it's not the easy ride for Cameron that one might suppose.

    But there is one thing that trumps all other considerations. Plausible deniability. Cameron has judiciously put a British Labour back-bencher and a LibDem lackey between himself and a defeat for the forces of British nationalism. It will be fairly easy for him to claim credit for saving the union should there be a No vote. He can simply say that his tactic of maintaining a certain distance was the smart thing to do. But Cameron's main concern is that he should not go down in history as the Tory Prime Minister who presided over the demise of the British state.

    Cameron cannot debate with Salmond without becoming more closely and intimately associated with the anti-independence campaign than he dare.

    1. Peter,

      You may be right. I'm mostly just stirring. But the idea that Cameron's participation in a debate against the FM would be a knock down win for Salmond is sufficiently orthodox that we ought to be suspicious of it.

    2. The idea that Salmond would best Cameron in debate is not without foundation. It is not merely a sentimental thing. We know that Salmond is an accomplished debater. But, perhaps more to the point, we know the quality of the respective cases. Salmond will have more and better ammunition. He is fully on top of the arguments on both sides, while Cameron is detached and remote in a way that is not going to be rectified by any amount of pre-debate briefing. I fully take your point about expectations. But it is difficult to see how Salmond could lose. How it might be represented in the media is, of course, another matter.

    3. The FM would certainly come armed with plenty of material to throw Cameron's way. It would also be outwith the PM's political comfort zone, and would need to be delicately handled from his side. If it happens. Which it probably wont. Alas.

  2. My feeling is that most people would like an Eckn'Dave gig as it may perhaps add to the gaiety of nations - as long as it's not up against Corrie.

    I also think the current situation suits both camps - Eck can do what he does effectively, shout fearty, while the Nos reflect on the thought that the fearty slingshot tactic doesn't play well with many of the voters the Ayes need, especially women.

    1. As well as being an opportunity for the respective sides to press their own narratives to boot. Concealed in the storm of words, a sort of peaceable, partisan equilibrium.