Scottish leaders’ debates: a tough night for Sturgeon, and a boost for the Greens

Out of the shadow of Westminster Sturgeon has more questions to answer


Last night’s Scottish leaders’ debates saw Nicola Sturgeon announce her plans for fast-track fiscal autonomy. The SNP leader said she would accept full powers for Scotland as soon as Westminster was willing to give them to her:

“As Scotland’s voice in the House of Commons, if the SNP is there in numbers we will be arguing for as many powers to come to Scotland as quickly as possible.”

This will no doubt be Scottish Labour’s main soundbite from the night, especially after the SNP’s transport minister Derek MacKay admitted on Radio 4’s Today programme that the plans would cost Scotland £7.6 billion a year in lost revenue. The IFS have costed full fiscal autonomy at this amount, which Mr McKay said he did not challenge.

Sturgeon was also grilled over the issue of a second referendum. She said she had not yet written the manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood elections but would not rule out including a second referendum. She added that it was up to the Scottish people to decide when the question would next be debated, but hinted, to boos from the audience:

“If the people of Scotland don’t vote for a party with a commitment in a manifesto to a referendum, there won’t be another referendum.”

Nicola Sturgeon is a great politician, polished and articulate and also quite likeable. But this was not her best night. In the English debates she is treated almost as a novelty – Cameron and Miliband are so intent on each other, and so intent on the same few shots, that anything she says seems refreshing.

But in a smaller arena she had more questions to answer about how exactly things will work economically; and the more she speaks, the more you realise that not all the numbers add up. How will she pay for an end to austerity? How will she cope with that £7.6 billion deficit?

And the referendum question left her looking a little disingenuous; she was asked by Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie to remember what the Scottish people had actually voted for. She claims to be standing up for Scotland – but 55 per cent of Scots voted against her, and planning another referendum looks like discounting their opinions – or assuming that she can sway them.

So how did the others do?

A tired-sounding Jim Murphy said nothing new – he focused on the shortcomings of austerity and Labour’s plans to raise taxes for those earning more than £150,000. He said people were being humiliated by having to use food bank vouchers – but had to be corrected by Nicola Sturgeon after he almost said one of Labour’s key policies would be to end food banks.

Unsurprisingly, the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson made use of the day’s non-dom fiasco, pointing out that Ed Balls thought abolishing the status would cost money. She also mocked Labour’s plans for tax increases, which the IFS have said ‘will bring in between 0 and £2bn pounds’.

But she stumbled on the question of welfare cuts put to her by Sturgeon – who exactly will be hit by the Tories’ £12bn worth of cuts? She said the Conservatives would freeze benefits for two years, cut the benefits cap, and cut the amount of out of work benefits – ‘because we want to cut the number of people out of work’.

The leader of the Scottish Greens Patrick Harvie asked Davidson if she had ‘even calculated how many children will be pushed deeper into poverty because of the freeze in benefits?’

Harvie came across very well – he is a reminder that, as a speaker at least, Natalie Bennett really isn’t the Greens’ best asset. He was applauded several times – memorably when he accused David Coburn of wanting to ‘save money by cancelling our membership of the civilised world’.

He was also good on North Sea reserves, swinging the conversation from an attack on Sturgeon for the way the falling oil price would have hit an independent Scotland to one about our over-dependence on fossil fuel, without getting too many eye-rolls.

Asked which policy he would not compromise on, he said the Greens would not budge on Trident and that ‘a coalition doesn’t need to be as dishonest as the current one’.

Harvie also said he wanted a reassessment of the neoliberal economic model, prompting host James Cook to ask if his party was against capitalism. This could have led to jeers about the crackpot Greens, but Harvie said big companies need to stop controlling public services – a feeling which goes far beyond his party. He came across as serious, prepared and honest – the Greens in the south should make more of him.

UKIP’s David Coburn I felt sorry for; his answers were garbled, he had one solitary point and was clearly no match for anybody else there. He did nothing to overshadow his horrible Humza Yousaf/ Abu Hamza slur of last month.

Willie Rennie was not especially memorable, although he was the first to pull Sturgeon up on oil prices; if Scotland had voted yes, he said, there would now be ‘absolute chaos’ since the price of oil plummeted. Rennie was caught, perhaps inevitably, in the difficult position of having to keep apologising – for tuition fees mainly – and having to praise the success of the last five years.

But, Coburn excepted, this is a more appealing crop of leaders than the ones in Westminster. The debate was far less pedantic and repetitive than any involving Cameron and Miliband can ever be. It may not have made for enthralling viewing, but it might make for a smoother coalition.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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