One thing last night’s TV debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling disproved was the old Nixon-sweat theory. You remember how, in the 1960 US presidential campaign, (ask your granny, Virginia) John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated on television. Nixon lost, many commentators claimed, because he developed a film of sweat on his upper lip while JFK remained sweat-less and won. Alex Salmond did some sweat-moustache stuff in last night’s debate but he won the debate by a country mile.
By body language as much as what he said. When asked about what currency an independent Scotland would use, Salmond stepped out from behind his podium and walked to a position nearer the audience. Body language in action: here I am, nothing to hide, I’m being frank and conversational. While behind him Alistair Darling looked like a slightly surprised shop-window dummy. When he took his place behind the podium again, Salmond stood with one elbow propped on it, his body and face turned to Darling with an expression between puzzlement and amusement – and occasionally indignation.
Mind you the audience did lob Salmond a couple of soft ones. One woman said she’d advise the audience and everyone else, when they vote they should remember one thing: “Don’t believe a word out of Alastair Darling’s mouth!”. What’s more, when Darling next dined with fancy NHS privatising people, she hoped the ghost of Aneuran Bevan sat on his shoulder. Another young lad asked Darling “If Better Together is so good, why aren’t we Better Together now?” Ouch. Cue audience cheer and whoop, cue Alistair looking like a man who’s had a ferret dropped down the front of his trousers.
Do these debates matter? There are two theories. One is they’re of no more significance than a cup of warm spit. The other is that they energise or deflate supporters, draw in or repulse those wobbling on the edge of voting for you. An opinion poll immediately after the debate showed 71% believed Salmond had won the debate while just 29% saw Darling as the victor. That could provide a warm glow for the Yes campagin but not much more. Alternatively it could prove to be their Gerry-Adams-arrest moment. We shall see.