David Cameron won't debate Alex Salmond because televised debates are for losers.

13 March 2013

The standard assumption about political debates is that the campaign with most to gain in all in favour of them while the candidate presumed to be the front-runner wants nothing to do with them. Franklin Roosevelt refused to debate Wendell Wilkie in 1940, LBJ refused to debate Barry Goldwater in 1964 and, four years later, Richard Nixon (perhaps recalling his experience in 1960) declined to debate Hubert Humphrey. Indeed, you can argue that the modern American practice of Presidential debates might not exist at all but for the weakness of the position in which Gerald Ford found himself in 1976.

As matters stand, I suspect there will be some reluctance to repeat 2010’s experiment with televised debates between the three principle party leaders. David Cameron will not be inclined to grant Ed Miliband an opportunity to appear Prime Ministerial (whatever that means) though, notionally, a series of debates would, assuming the Lib Dem leader is included, give the government 66% of the airtime to defend its record.

Nevertheless there is, I think, a sense that the 2010 debates distorted the campaign. It was three debates and not much else with the media either previewing or reviewing the debates and largely ignoring all the lovely scripted moments the campaigns had planned for their consumption.

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But what about the other campaign Mr Cameron faces? Well, it seems he won’t be debating Alex Salmond either. Downing Street suggests that Salmond’s challenge to debate Cameron is the kind of “wheeze” for which the Prime Minister will not fall.

Doubtless there are decent reasons for declining the opportunity to wrestle with Salmond. It certainly suits the First Minister to suggest Cameron is feart. According to Annabelle Ewing “quoted” in an SNP press release, the Prime Minister’s disinclination to debate Salmond “speaks volumes about the UK Government’s attitude to Scotland”.

Perhaps it does, though of course one reason the SNP want a Salmond-Cameron debate is that pictures of Salmond an Cameron debating one another elevate the First Minister’s status while subtly reducing Cameron’s. The nationalist expectation is that Salmond would be seen as Scotia’s champion while Cameron may be regarded as the (Tory) leader of some kind of foreign power.

So, in that respect, Cameron’s reluctance to play this game is understandable. And yet, damn it, there’s something mildly regrettable about it too. True, Cameron did not perform particularly well in the 2010 election debates (I thought he only won one of them) but that’s an ignoble (if practical) reason for avoiding them in the future.

And since the Prime Minister really does believe in the Union there is something to be said for him making that case in a debate (or series of debates!) against Alex Salmond. I think it would be useful for Scots to hear from the Prime Minister just why they are a valued part of the British polity. Most of all, however, there’s something odd about the Prime Minister excusing himself from the field of battle when that battle is a fight for the future existence of his own country.

Nevertheless, it is also the case that the other reason the SNP are so keen to have a Salmond-Cameron debate is because, deep-down, leading nationalists worry they are, as matters stand, on course to lose this referendum. Which, of course, is another reason why Cameron feels no need to risk debating Alex Salmond.

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  • john

    Quote: The nationalist expectation is that Salmond would be seen as Scotia’s champion while Cameron may be regarded as the (Tory) leader of some kind of foreign power.
    And your point is?

    • terregles2

      Think many Scots even those who do not vote for Salmond recognise him as someone who always speaks up for Scotland. Whether they agree or disagree with him they acknowledge that he is more interested in Scotland’s welfare than Cameron could ever be.

      Cameron and Westminster are not viewed as a foreign power they are viewed as what they are. A Tory administration mismanaging the country and wasting Scotland’s resources on war and nuclear weapons.

      Why would Cameron ever have any interest or concern for Scotland’s welfare he has only 1 Scottish MP. Once again makes us wonder why he fights hard against Scottish Independence. Maybe he could have that public debate with Salmond and enlighten us?

      • john

        I agree! In my view the UK has lost its way big time. Economic growth is lousy and will stay that way. London does fine but everywhere else is moribund. I hope a Scottish defection will bring about some real shake up.

        • terregles2

          Hope so John all of us throughout the UK deserve so much better.

  • Richard Manns

    Honestly, it’s getting silly. Will Scotland vote for independence? Almost certainly not. There’s been about one poll that gave the SNP a fillip and that’s it. Scots may enjoy the knocking of the English (and why not, vice versa in their turn) but there’s never been a majority pro-secession. The pro-secession campaign has been poor, the pro-union has been coasting. And, sorry to be flippant, but who’d want to see Salmond’s face forever blazoned on their history books and monuments? I predict a Quebec-style outcome. The SNP will exhaust themselves, lose, and shrivel like the péquistes.

    But would Scotland suffer if it were independent? In the short term, yes. Few countries with their own independence movements (France, Spain, Italy, to name a few) would welcome a secessionist state into the EU, at least immediately, and even less so were it to cause them even more financial burden. Long-term, well, just take the Republic of Ireland as an example.

    Who knows? Perhaps, long term, cutting themselves off from London would allow Scotland to build their own socialist utopia, and the horrifying experience might lead them back to Adam Smith and the great days of Scottish intellect and ingenuity. Or not. But as Ireland and its priests and economy and laundries have shown, there’s no utopia to be had. The SNP can promise the world, because if it got a Yes, the die would be cast, and they’d never actually have to deliver. And, of course, Ireland then had a civil war after the treaty was signed. Hardly the greatest role model.

    • terregles2

      I would not be arrogant enough to predict the outcome of a referendum due to take place in 2014. Politics can change dramatically from week to week and anyone trying to tell us what will happen in one years time is too silly for words.

      What we do know as fact is that the majority of Scots are in favour of Devo-max but as that is not an option Scots in 2014 must choose YES or NO. The lack of the third preferred option may push voters closer to a YES choice.
      To compare a rich country like Scotland with Ireland is also a silly comparison. Scotland raises high revenue from exports and resources of Whisky, Textiles, Gas, Paper, Fisheries, Food exports, Forestry, Oil, Biotechnology, Renewables, Stem Cell Research, Tourism, Metals etc.

      If Scotland were not a rich country Westminster would not be fighting hard to prevent Independence. Most Scots do not enjoy “knocking the English” many of us have English family and friends. What we do “knock” is the dreadful level of government that we receive from Westminster.

      It is unlikely that the EU would accept poor countries like Bulgaria and refuse the only oil producing country in Europe entry to the EU. Even if Scotland were not an EU member it would still have a large market as we can see from the continuing rise in our exports to China and India.

      To say Scotland would suffer from Independence in the short term is also rather an arrogant assumption. What we do know as fact is that Scotland has suffered from being in the Union. Our country is still scarred by the long dark Thatcher years where she destroyed so many of our communities. We have suffered by being dragged into Iraq and Afghanistan and we have suffered by having the obscenity of Trident in our country.
      To predict the type of governemnt that an Independent Scotland would have is also rather silly. There are now more than four political Scottish parties campaigning for a YES vote. As Holyrood has PR we do not know which party will dominate the parliament. Many people who will vote YES will not necessarily go on to vote SNP in a new Holyrood administration.
      You rather weaken your argument by referring to “Salmond’s face”. Independence has little to do with one man.It has to do with a nation choosing to govern itself like almost every other country in the world. Usually people with a rather weak argument against Independence choose instead to insult one man.

  • John Zorn

    The use of the word ‘debate’ in the headline is ugly. It is US English and is fine over there – but not here.

  • john

    I really hope that the Scots make progress towards independence. Anything that challenges the moribund British “constitution” and ruling establishment is very desirable. I see Scot independence leading to a move away for the monarchy. Maybe the Aussies will then follow and mirabile dictu the Windosrs will be on the skids.


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  • JPJ2

    As a result of the referendum vote either Salmond or Cameron will be the principal (correct) political leader of Scotland.
    There are therefore no convincing grounds on which Cameron can avoid this debate, so he is in trouble.-debate and assuredly lose, or do not debate and be condemned.
    Unionists outmanoevred again by Salmond-calling him “Fat Eck” or smarmy, slimy Salmond won’t cut it oh silly unionists :-)

  • Toque

    A Cameron vs Salmond contest would get airtime in England, and Cameron hardly wants to appear on prime time TV in England arguing that Scotland is over-represented and over-funded.

    He’d rather let Alistair Darling debate Salmond and keep it confined to BBC Scotland.

    • Jambo25

      You are quite right on this. If Cameron held a debate with Salmond it would certainly be shown on TV, UK wide. Cameron’s problems are twofold. Firstly, Salmond is not part of the Westminster consensus so he would be willing to look at economic and political matters in ways which might actually be popular with English as well as Scottish voters. Secondly, I suspect that Salmond is simply a better debater than Cameron.

      As for Salmond debating with Darling. Why should he. Salmond is leader of the SNP and Scottish FM. Darling is now merely a back bench MP. If the ‘Better Together’ mob want a debate, produce a suitable candidate.

      • Toque

        Spot on. Better Together may say that Salmond is anti-English but there’s a huge swathe – perhaps the majority – of the English population who will find Salmond’s vision of England better than that of Cameron (who not only doesn’t have a vision for England but hardly dare mention her name).

        This Englishman would welcome Salmond forcing the issue in a TV debate with Cameron.

        • Wessex Man

          Yes I certainly would, what should be remembered is that Cameron is really only having to debate with one opposition as he has the other in his government. I’d love to see him try to belittle Salmond as he does Miliband, he just wouldn’t get away with it and he knows it!

        • John Zorn

          Salmond is NOT antiEnglish.

          • Toque

            I didn’t say he was. Learn to read.

            • HenBroon

              Toque…… one said you did, learn to read. However we frequently read that Alex Salmond and Scottish Independece supporters are motivated by hatred of the English etc etc. The granddaddy of Unionist myths. It’s rather like claiming that the anti-racism movement is motived solely by hatred of white people, women only want equality because they hate men, or gay people only want to get married because they hate Catholics.

              This debate is about government and whether Scotland’s interests are served by a parliamentary union which denies Scotland basic democratic control of many aspects of the administration of our country. It’s not about England and the English at all.

              There are legitimate, and serious, questions of democratic representation in Scotland under the Union. Although this concept may be difficult for Daily Telegraph readers to grasp, the desire for Scottish self-determination is not about England and the English. Shocking but true. England is not the centre of the Scottish universe, that would be Scotland. Perhaps that’s what they’re really objecting to.

        • terregles2

          I would love to see the English pushing for a better government in England after 2014. They deserve so much better than the arrogant incompetents they have at the moment. Good luck to all of us in 2014.

    • John Zorn

      Wrong use of ‘debate’ here. Sort it out.

  • In2minds

    I like the pic, Smuggo gives Lord Snooty a headache!

  • David Barnett

    Principle party leaders? Oh dear.

    • terregles2

      Unusual to see a spelling error. Normally the errors are in the “facts” of the article.

  • David Lindsay

    The Greens are the latest to want to be included in the Leaders’ Debate in the run-up to the next General Election.

    But after the last time, these constitutionally monstrous events are never again going to be held, and a good thing, too.

    They have them in America, not only because they have a Presidential system (the reason why they are constitutionally monstrous in the United Kingdom), but also because they only really have two parties.

    That the Greens now have an MP, unlike some people, and stand a very good chance of acquiring at least one more, illustrates quite how far removed from even an approximation to that state of affairs this country now is.

    And that is before 2015, when the mere existence of UKIP is going to give the Lib Dems so many Southern Conservative seats that the Miliband Government is going to give the two Con Dem parties parity in parliamentary affairs.

    First Past The Post, a late development in our parliamentary history, is as likely to exist in 2025 as Leaders’ Debates are to be held in 2015. Which is to say, not at all.

    • Wessex Man

      We can always rely on you David to muddy the waters, what in the name of Heaven has this article got to do woth your fantasies about UKIP?

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  • terregles2

    Cameron cannot debate with Salmond or any other YES campaign politician simply because the NO campaign have no point to put forward. Since the debate began they have done nothing but quote dubious economic figures and print the most bizarre scare stories. If these hysterical “facts” were exposed in any debate they would crumble and be exposed for the nonsense that they are. The fact that the NO campaign “facts” have been repeatedly discredited speak for themselves. Also the fact that Cameron wants to keep hold of Scotland speaks volumes.
    Almost every country in the world governs itself and there is no reason why Scotland can not do the same.
    There are now four political parties in Scotland campaigning hard for a YES vote the latest one being the section of the Scottish Labour party Labourforindy. If the Unionist politicians in Westminster are reluctant to engage in public debate perhaps the next best thing could be Johann Lamont leader of the official Scottish Labour party she could have a public debate with Allan Grogan Leader of the Labourforindy Party.
    It would be an interesting debate and as Johann sits in the Holyrood parliament she would be in the best position to debate with Allan Grogan one of her former Labour colleagues.

    • Jambo25

      The latest one is from Vince the Cable. Vote ‘No’ and you’ll get dosh from the privatisation of RBS (Maybe?).

      • terregles2

        What a clown. You would think some of his Scottish allies the Scottish Labour/ Tartan Tories alliance would advise him that even by Unionist propaganda standards that is really scraping the barrel.

    • Tony Quintus

      Dubious figures, have you seen the latest nonsense published by the SNP, oil revenue projections double what any expert has predicted for the next 25 years, not to mention the magic wand waving which will instantly end child poverty and increase public spending. And this is before we get to the SNPs out and out lies on legal advice and refusal to accept the position of the entire EU on their potential membership.
      When you have to class a few labour rebels as a new political party you know you’re in trouble, something which all the polls bear out.

      • Iain S

        The figures that the UK Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) issue always seem to be wildly out when discussing Scottish oil. It’s almost as if they’re trying to hide something.

        How about we compare them with other respected sources?

      • terregles2

        The GERS figures you describe as dubious are official Westminster government figures. if you think they are out and out lies you should really complain to HMT.

        Leaving the figures aside it is a fact that Scotland is the only country in the world to discover oil and become poorer.

        To suggest that the EU would refuse entry to the only oil producing country in the EU is to say the least highly unlikely. If the oil running out would present a problem for Scotland it would present an even bigger problem for England as Scotland has never had control of the money raised from oil. Scotland will do well in or out of the EU. Scottish exports of Whisky food products etc are continuing to increase to the larger markets of India and China.

        Nobody is suggesting that any government will wave a magic wand and wipe out child poverty overnight. What they are suggesting is that the rich Scottish resources will be used to try and build a fairer and more just society in Scotland. Our wealth is being squandered by tories who waste it on Trident, Iraq, Afghanistan and reward greedy bankers while punishing the poor. Scotland still bears the scars of the long dark Thatcher years when she squandered all our oil money on dole payouts.

        I do not vote for Labour or SNP but still intend to vote YES in the referendum. I find your dismissal of the Labourforindy party as a few Labour rebels staggeringly arrogant. They present a coherent argument whether you agree with them or not. I did not know much about them but I watched a youtube clip of Allan Grogan and he came across as more charasmatic and a far superior orator than Johann Lamont. The difference is also Labourforindy are gaining new members daily while Scottish Labour are rapidly hemorrhaging members particularly since they united with the Westminster Tories.

      • Jamie MacLean

        If you want answers I suggest you actually read up on it. The White Paper, the YES Scotland Campaign and its FAQ or you can ask them by contacting them. What is Westminster going to do to ‘persuade’ yes voters (persuade not intimidate) to vote NO?

  • JP

    Cameron should stay well away. I can’t stress enough what a disaster this would be – man o’ the people Salmond takes on the Tory toff would be how it would be caricatured by the SNP. Ally Darling would play well though, but it’s still a risk – the less we see of Salmond’s smug coupon the better.

    • terregles2

      Don’t think Darling would be the best person to inspire trust in his judgement or his opinion. After all he thought that the illegal war in Iraq was a good idea.
      Why can it not be a debate between the two Holyrood Leaders for example Salmond and Lamont.?

      • Jambo25

        You’re just being cruel attempting to have a Salmond v Lamont debate. Salmond’s main problem would be in not crushing Lamont too much; otherwise he would be thought a bully. She is awful.

        • terregles2

          I would have thought that Johann Lamont as leader of the Scottish Labour party would have been more prominent in the NO debate. We never hear from her at all. Seems strange unless there has perhaps been an agreement that the Leader of the United better together campaign Cameron should do all the talking for Lamont. In fairness I suppose that she cannot directly challenge her spokesman.

          • Jambo25

            She’s awful. She simply is way out of her depth.

    • Jamie MacLean

      I think we need to focus more on the substance of the serious arguments than your personal opinion on someone who you do not know personally (unless of course you have met and spoke with him), judging a book by its cover…it’s become such a cliché.

  • MichtyMe

    I would have liked a debate, if only to witness the discomfiture of the Labourites when Cameron stepped forward as the champion of the Union.

    • terregles2

      Hilarious. Scottish Labour staunchly supporting Westminster Tories. Whatever next?

  • John Nisbet

    You would assume that the prime minister of the UK would take every opportunity to defend the union. I expect the referendum to be close (certainly within 100,000 votes) and think this snub will come back to haunt Cameron.

    • terregles2

      To be fair I can understand his reluctance. All the NO campaign have to offer are scare stories and they would not really stand up in any debate.

  • Vrai Telemachus

    Fat boy Salmond is a slob and much as I decry Cameron’s economic policies he should not debase himself by levelling himself with a slob
    via facebook C11(Sinclair)

    • Doug Daniel

      Ahhh, if only the dreaded Cybernats would raise their level of debate to this standard, instead of flinging personal insults at politicians.

      Oh, wait a minute…

      • Wessex Man

        Well said Doug Daniel, Telemachus in all of his guises is typical of his political party. Whilst Salmond is campaigning to break up the UK, it doesn’t make him a slob. He fights his corner for Scotland with a vigour that is sadly lacking in any English politician, I admire his durability when faced with the attempted smearing of his policies aims by Call me Dave and the other rabble at Westminster and I wish we had an Englishman amongst the great underworked English MPs at Westmnister.

        I wish Salmond all the success he can achieve for Scotland and look forward to the break up of this out dated Union.

        • terregles2

          You are right English people deserve much better. I feel sorry for my English friends and family living in England. I hope that after Scottish independence England also has a much fairer political system with politicians who put the needs of ordinary English people before the needs of bankers etc.

        • Lisa Robertson

          Thanks Wessex Man, we too hope that if in event of Scotland’s Independence that as a smaller country too, your voice and those of all others in England will be heard better by your Gov. You most definitely deserve to be heard,the London Government only seems concerned about City of London and nit the many areas outwith Tory heartlands. Keep shouting loud, thats what many Scots have done for decades,our Scot Gov listened and me, as an ex Lab voter, I heard and changed my opinion in the party I’d supported for decades and started to really respect SNP Scottish Government and Independence within the British Isles is the only way forward for all in the UK.

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