I’m not sure anyone won the first leaders debate of the Holyrood election but Nicola Sturgeon definitely lost it. The SNP leader spent more than an hour on the defensive, first from voters, who joined via Zoom to harangue her for prioritising a second independence referendum during a pandemic, and then by the opposition leaders, who tore into her record on health and education.
She has been running Scotland, either solo or in tandem with Alex Salmond, for 14 years now and there is the slimmest chance the public is starting to notice she's not very good at it.
Sturgeon handled neither the interrogations from the audience nor those from her opponents with anything like her customary self-assurance. When one voter, Selwyn, objected to her having put a referendum Bill through Holyrood in recent weeks, she tried to argue the point with him, saying the draft legislation had been published but not yet passed.
Challenged to shelve independence until after the Covid recovery, Sturgeon recalled how she had been told the same in the wake of the global financial crash. The leader of the SNP could hardly be expected to concede that there are crises to which independence is not the answer, but going out of her way to suggest that Scotland could or should have left the UK while the world economy was bungee-jumping without a rope is an odd way to reassure middle-ground voters.
What might cause her more difficulty over the next few weeks is her evident lack of an answer to the question I posed on Monday: if Sturgeon is so concerned about poverty, as her election positioning suggests, why has it taken her 14 years to get round to doing something about it? The question came up in the debate in various forms, not least her pledge to give every school pupil in Scotland a laptop or tablet.
Asked why she had waited until five weeks before polling day to unveil this policy, rather than the start of the pandemic, she suggested that the original focus was those pupils most in need. Were all the other pupils not in need? Are they still not in need? If so, why are they getting an iPad? Wouldn't a real social democrat focus resources on those most in need instead of handing out Chromebooks to the offspring of accountants and orthodontists? This is what happens when your every policy is designed with bagging votes for independence in mind.
Anas Sarwar confirmed that Scottish Labour members made the right choice when they selected him as leader last month. He was calm, measured and empathetic. He shared the story of a woman named Mary, diagnosed with tertiary cancer who has been told she'll have to go to England for treatment because the Scottish NHS is only operating on first occurrences of cancer during the pandemic. In his strongest moment of the debate, Sarwar said:
“'That is what should be getting us exercised in this debate today. That is what we should be obsessing about... These are the things that matter to people across the country. They don't care about the badges or the name calling. They care about having services that work for them.'
This is exactly what I had in mind when I made the case for him to be Scottish Labour leader: 'He knows what gets headlines, what tugs heart-strings, what makes Sturgeon squirm.' Last night, he did all three.
There is still room for improvement. He is too eager to please and too eager to agree and, if he's not careful, his attempts to glide above the fray might start to look sophistic – even aloof. Even in centre-left politics, the hopey, changey stuff only carries you so far. At some point, you need dividing lines, especially against an opponent like Nicola Sturgeon. She didn't go on the attack quickly enough last night. She won't make that mistake again.
Lorna Slater is one of several dozen leaders of the Scottish Greens and the debate will have been the first time most Scots were exposed to the Canadian-born engineer. She benefits from a smooth, blended accent (75 per cent Edinburgh, 25 per cent Alberta) that made everything she said sound sweetly reasonable, even when it was prelapsarian druidical mush about sinking the entire North Sea energy sector so we could all live in yurts.
Greens are the most backward-looking mob in politics but are gushed over as 'progressives'. Socialists want to undo the 1980s and conservatives the1960s but greens want to uninvent the industrial revolution and get spoken about as though they were only slightly impatient Lib Dems.
Speaking of Lib Dems, Willie Rennie is not your average one of those. He doesn't believe in apologising for being a liberal, nor is he a simp for Nicola Sturgeon in the way that so many London liberals are. He proved again last night that he can both oppose the SNP and make a positive case for a more compassionate Scotland. 'I've seen a window into the next five years in the last few weeks,' he remarked. 'Arguments over the constitution, strategy about independence, arguments between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond which have been poisonous and unpleasant.' Instead, the focus should be on improving mental health, beginning with the 1,500 youngsters waiting more than a year for treatment.
Sturgeon was the worst performer by some distance but she had lively competition in the form of Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader. No matter the question, he referendum-ed the answer. In Friends, David Schwimmer's character acquired the nickname 'Red Ross' for his propensity to become irrationally angry and scarlet-cheeked at the most minor annoyance. Referendum Ross is much the same: he can't modulate his indignation and so reacts to the mere suggestion of a second indyref as though it is a proposal to catapult Princess Anne into a piranha tank.
Referendum Ross is what happens when you frog-march an inexperienced MP into the leadership of a political party at a moment of crisis. The man himself is perfectly charming in person and his life doesn't revolve around politics. This should make him come across better than he does, but something happens when he gets in front of a camera. They say TV adds ten pounds but in Douglas Ross's case it sheds every last ounce of likability. This was especially so during a question about personal abuse in politics. Sarwar alluded to the bigotry he has faced and something somewhere in Ross’s mind advised him to suggest ‘it all goes back to the distraction of a referendum’.
There was a telling moment when a transwoman talked about her 14-month wait for a gender identity clinic and asked the leaders how they would improve services for trans people. Almost everyone on the stage was a #TransWomenAreWomen ideologue but here was a trans rights issue that called for more than a hashtag and the half-frightened recitation of dogma. Those of us who believe people are defined by sex rather than gender are accused of being 'trans-exclusionary' but ostentatiously using someone's preferred pronouns while failing to fund and deliver their services is hardly trans-inclusionary.
Who knows whether these debates have any impact but anyone tuning in last night will have seen Sarwar and Rennie give a decent accounting of themselves, Ross bang on about a referendum he doesn't want to happen, and an uncanny sight: Nicola Sturgeon on the wrong side of public opinion.