Picking the bones out of the TV leaders’ debate - Alex Cole-Hamilton

John Swinney,  Anas Sarwar, Douglas Ross,and Alex Cole-Hamilton with STV's Colin MackayJohn Swinney,  Anas Sarwar, Douglas Ross,and Alex Cole-Hamilton with STV's Colin Mackay
John Swinney, Anas Sarwar, Douglas Ross,and Alex Cole-Hamilton with STV's Colin Mackay
Fredrich Nietzsche famously wrote that if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you. Well, there’s a moment in live television when it hits you that on the other side the black convex lens of the camera are several hundred thousand people.

I’ve done many live TV debates before and clips to camera almost every day of this general election campaign but last night was entirely different.

I’ve never done a party leaders debate in the teeth of a national campaign before and it’s fair to say, that while people have been very kind about my performance, it's a bit like sitting an exam - the adrenaline is going and time flies by.

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Elections are seldom won in a TV studio, and knock out blows are rare. But STV are famous for their innovative style of election debate, where much of the allotted time is taken up with the leaders actually grilling one another. I welcome that format. For a start it means that we all get equal time and an opportunity to fully unpack our offer to the voters whilst probing those of our opponents for weaknesses.

Oddly enough my exchange with Anas Sarwar has been criticised by some for being too respectful. You just can’t win. On the one hand there is rightly criticism of the hostile and rancorous level of debate in our politics, but try and inject some civility into proceedings and you are met with complaints that it’s all getting a bit too friendly.

I’m not interested in shouting matches. I want answers to real issues of policy that matter to people and so I grilled Anas on how little Labour seem to talk about rural healthcare and the sewage crisis in our rivers.

He went on to ask me about Lib Dem plans to restore access to NHS dentistry. I explained that we need the UK government to make it easier for qualified foreign dentists working here as hygienists (or even delivery drivers) to practice as dentists in the Scottish NHS.

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I was surprised that John Swinney seemed totally unprepared for my questions about the mass deletion of Covid messages, by Nicola Sturgeon and almost everyone else in charge of the Government’s response to the pandemic. He as good as confessed he had deleted his messages too, forever denying answers and closure to the bereaved families of those who died during the pandemic. They deserve to know what precisely was going on behind decisions such as moving untested and covid-positive patients into care homes.

Douglas Ross was typically grumpy. He didn’t like me asking about his judgment for expressing confidence in Boris Johnson after partygate, or championing Liz Truss’ approach to taxation when she detonated the UK economy. He also seemed genuinely surprised when I pointed out that while he and John Swinney had mentioned independence nearly every day of the campaign, they were the only ones talking about it. Everyone else had moved on.

People genuinely aren’t interested in fighting the elections of the past. They don’t care about who is best placed to deliver a second referendum or most likely to stop it. They just want to know when they’ll get that hip replacement or who’s going to improve their kid’s education. Being able to talk in depth about those priorities, without the millstone of the constitution hanging off every answer was the most liberating aspect of last night’s debate.

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