Ian Swanson: TV debate will help switch voters on

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THE Scottish Parliament starts its summer break today – but with the clock ticking relentlessly towards the referendum, politicians are more likely to find themselves pounding the pavements over the next few weeks than lying by the pool.

School may be out, the sun may be shining and holidays may be beckoning, but the country’s constitutional future must still be decided. So the campaigning goes on.

And to keep everyone entertained, there might also be a televised debate. After David Cameron’s repeated refusal to go head-to-head with him, Alex Salmond has said he will debate with the leader of the Better Together campaign Alistair Darling. STV planned to stage the two-hour clash in front of an audience of 500 at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms on July 16. But a row about the dates has left the occasion in doubt.

Mr Salmond apparently wants to postpone the event until after the Commonwealth Games. The No campaigners complain STV previously insisted the date was “non-negotiable” but has now “rolled over” to accommodate the First Minister. And they say they have accepted an invitation from the BBC to Mr Darling for a debate on August 12.

If it can all be sorted out, the debate could prove a significant event in the long-running independence battle. The TV showdown involving the three party leaders at the last UK general election catapulted Nick Clegg to unexpected popularity and arguably paved the way for the Lib Dems’ inclusion in government.

But there are pitfalls as well. John F Kennedy famously triumphed in his 1960 TV debate with Richard Nixon, who appeared tired and haggard because of his “five o’clock shadow” – although people who listened to it on radio rather than watching the TV thought Nixon had come out better.

So what could we expect from a Salmond-Darling clash? The first thing both the politicians and the broadcasters will be eager to avoid is anything resembling the televised debate between Nicola Sturgeon and Johann Lamont earlier this year, which descended into a shouting match where they were talking over each other so much the audience had no chance of hearing what either was saying.

If Mr Cameron had agreed to a debate, the Yes campaign would have delighted in the sight – and sound – of a Tory toff from the Home Counties taking on Scotland’s First Minister. The Prime Minister might have managed a few surprise hits, but it seems certain Mr Salmond would have won such a confrontation comfortably.

In Mr Darling, he faces a more equal challenge. To start with, being Scottish and Labour gives the Edinburgh South West MP and former Chancellor a double advantage over the Prime Minister. He is also a trained lawyer, able to master briefs and deploy persuasive arguments.

And his experience at the centre of government during the 2008 global banking crisis gives him serious gravitas.

But there is no doubt Mr Darling is up against a shrewd and talented operator. Mr Salmond is widely recognised as one of the most skilled politicians anywhere in the UK. He can turn tricky situations to his advantage with a flair few others share.

Opponents sometimes claim “Smart Alex” can be too clever for his own good, but the SNP’s unprecedented overall majority in the last Holyrood elections show he can surprise everyone – even himself.

A debate between these two men would certainly be worth tuning in for.