Loads of people have used social media to post their verdicts on the two televised leaders' debates. Some may have actually watched them. The Daily Record
online poll called both for Sarwar while The Herald
put Sturgeon ahead (no surprises there). The Scottish Conservatives' Twitter account called the BBC debate 'Ross 1 Sturgeon 0'. That piece of Newspeak would have made George Orwell smile. He called it the 'the language of propaganda'. The general consensus from all sides was that Anas Sarwar performed strongly and Nicola Sturgeon solidly, albeit from the stance of a defending incumbent. No-one thought Douglas Ross cut it in either.
I don't like leaders' debates. They make me nervous and change very little. When I was a student in the 1960s, my politics class had to study the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon TV debate. It is still talked about as the turning point in the campaign. Nixon was the favourite until he went before the glare of the cameras in an ill-fitting suit that merged into the studio background and with what looked like a five o'clock shadow caused by his refusal to allow studio make up. No-one now remembers that the pundits called the second and third debates for Nixon and the fourth a draw. Far fewer people tuned in for the other debates.
Mark Twain defined a classic as 'something that everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read'. Leaders' debates are a bit like that. There is a huge fuss if a leader refuses to take part, as did Theresa May. They are analysed to the nth degree, but does anyone decide who to vote for as a result? How many people watch from start to finish and how many just watch the start then turn over and read about it later online or in the newspapers?
Two political commentators provided us with some interesting and useful insights into the making of these debates. Former Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, posted a series of tweets describing her role in helping Ed Miliband prepare to take on David Cameron, and Better Together co-ordinator, Blair McDougall, described his contribution to the indy ref TV debates. Kezia wrote about the work that goes into preparation and how she had to roleplay Nicola Sturgeon. She also admitted that as a participant you have no idea how it has gone – it is a complete blur afterwards.
Blair revealed some of the strategy employed. We were told the value of a 'moment of conflict' or a memorable sound bite. Both are invaluable as the media will be looking for a single strong story from the debate, not a blow by blow account. Sarwar scored well on both these counts in the BBC debate. First he challenged the First Minister on the delay in treating the cancer patient he had met, and then, later, he told Tory leader, Douglas Ross, to 'grow up'. This was when Ross foolishly attacked Sarwar in answer to a question on racism and prejudice that had the making of uniting the candidates till he piped up. This, by the way, was an example of how not to follow the strategy handbook – the bit where it says 'avoid the clanger'.
Douglas Ross misread the situation badly. He is not the first. When Gerald Ford was debating Jimmy Carter in 1976, he famously gaffed that 'there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under my administration'. In 1992, George H W Bush was caught on camera looking at his watch when a woman was asking him a heartfelt searching question.
The STV debate had a very different format from the BBC one especially giving over so much time to candidate cross-examination. It was also much more wide-ranging in topics covered but how much of that will be remembered? I'm sure Sturgeon's opponents will want to remind voters she admitted 'we took our eye off the ball on drug deaths'. But will anyone recall it was in answer to a question from Douglas Ross? Makes you wonder what was holding her gaze at the time.
Patrick Harvie asked Douglas Ross one of the best questions of the night: 'Is it your whole party that is prejudiced against gypsy travellers – or just you?' This provided Anas Sarwar with the ammunition for a good one-liner later to Ross: 'I'm not sure talking about hate crime is your strongest suit'.
Nicola Sturgeon came under heavy fire on her government's record over the last 14 years. As in the first debate, Anas Sarwar focused on an individual, the death of 10-year-old Millie Main, to drive home his question on why she allowed the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow to open given the problems it had. Years later and a public enquiry to get at the truth didn't seem a very satisfying outcome.
The great myth surrounding everything to do with TV leaders' debates is that they have any significant influence on the outcome of the election. When George H W Bush was glancing at his watch back in 1992, I was taking part in a far more humble event. Radio Scotland was broadcasting a live hustings of the candidates standing in Ayr Constituency. I tried to remember all the preparation and media training I had been given. I got my 'moment of conflict' in early when one of my supporters was picked to ask the first question. It was about the consultation that had just closed on giving the new Ayr Hospital trust status. I was 'shocked' to learn that the SNP candidate hadn't bothered to make a submission. Then a question on the poll tax gave me an open goal against the Tory candidate.
Kezia was absolutely right to point out that you have no idea how you have done in a debate. When it was over it was all just a blur, but everyone told me how well it had gone. Two weeks later, I got beat.