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by Louise Wilson
12 June 2024
Sketch: Scottish leaders duke it out in BBC debate

Credit: Iain Green

Sketch: Scottish leaders duke it out in BBC debate

The spin room is abuzz with excitement. Or is it just caffeine jitters after three weeks on the campaign trail?

Either way, some BBC employee takes it upon themselves to put on Eastenders to help calm the room before the big Scottish Leaders Debate. The SNP’s spin doctor laughs with a journalist about how the same faces appear on the soap despite it being 20 years since they last watched it… which felt a little ironic, given who headed up the SNP 20 years ago.

Then the soap’s famous drum fill sounds and at last, it is time for the debate to begin. Green Lorna Slater drew the golden ticket to kick things off, and she begins by reassuring the audience that none of the debate is about the politicians currently stood in front of the camera, despite them being the ones arguing why they should be in charge of the country.

He promises his party will aim to “create good jobs” – specifically one for him at Westminster

“It’s about you and your future,” Slater insists. She tells the audience the SNP “have let you down”, which if nothing else proved her place among her brass-necked peers since she was literally in government until about seven weeks ago.

Labour’s Anas Sarwar delivers his opener with the gravitas of a smooth salesman. This election, he schmoozes, is an “opportunity” for you, the discerning voter. And you simply “can’t afford to miss” out when such an exciting proposition has arrived right at your door. Can he put you down for five boxes of Labour government, as a starting point?

The contrast between him and Tory Douglas Ross is stark. Ross – who just the day before confirmed he couldn’t be bothered anymore and was quitting as leader – delivers a lacklustre pitch during which he vaguely promises to “beat the SNP”. You can tell any real oomph has long left his body. He promises his party will aim to “create good jobs” – specifically one for him at Westminster.

Honest John Swinney, of the SNP, simply wants others to be as honest as he is. Neither Labour nor the Tories are “being straight with you”, he says, before going on to obfuscate about his own record in government.

Last is Lib Dem Alex Cole-Hamilton, who reveals he is frequently asked “why I’m always smiling”. “The simple reason is we love what we do,” he explains. And that’s why you should vote for him, apparently, because he loves being a politician so much. The question is: is he a smiling assassin or a smiling idiot?

Alamy

Answering the first audience question, Cole-Hamilton admits he has “seen poverty”. Which is at least slightly better than Rishi Sunak claiming he was hard done by as a kid because he never had Sky.

Slater launches a blistering attack on the “super wealthy” and argues they “made out like bandits” in the Covid pandemic, which earns her the first applause of the evening. But it seems she does think there are lessons to be learned from the super wealthy, as she unexpectedly insists “you have to make money to spend money”. Not what you’d expect from a Green who doesn’t see the benefit of GDP growth.

Sarwar pivots to a devolved issue, grilling Swinney over his record as education secretary. Swinney argues his decisions were a “direct product of austerity” – it’s not my fault, guv, honest! Sarwar hits back that he doesn’t know “why you’re so depressed” because a Labour government would end austerity. But the cuts, the cuts, replies Swinney, floundering.

“It’s always somebody else’s fault,” mutters Cole-Hamilton. Swinney continues his attack on Labour, unbothered by comments from the smiling idiot in the corner.

But Labour have changed; he’s changed; please come back to us, Scotland, he begs

Slater sees another in, and a chance to defend her own record, insisting the fixed budget forces the Scottish Government into an “impossible position”. “You have to do everything with this tiny package,” she says.

Ross, channeling thousands of men who tell women something is much bigger than she thinks it is, argues it is “not a tiny package”.

The last main theme of the night is, naturally, independence. Sarwar repeats his pitch to Yes-leaning voters, saying he gets why they’d want to run a million miles from a “Tory party they can’t get rid of or a Labour party that couldn’t win”. But Labour have changed; he’s changed; please come back to us, Scotland, he begs.

Slater is displeased, but Sarwar continues to warn the choice now is either a Labour government or five more years of the Tories.

“Nobody is going to vote for him,” Slater quips, indicating her neighbour Ross. “Don’t worry.”

Ross is not amused. He accuses pro-indy politicians of stoking a “decade of division” – nothing to do with me, guv! – and adds that “we can do so much better”. So why isn’t the UK doing so much better after 14 years under his party?

All Swinney has to say is independence is an “exciting and beautiful” prospect, but he doesn’t press the point. It’s almost like he’s realised it’s not a vote winner anymore.

But the main takeaway from the debate was not one of these politicians were brave enough to answer the key question of the night: is the Barnett Formula baby milk?

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