In American Presidential elections, the story is pretty familiar. In 1960, Kennedy debated with Nixon on television and won. No bad thing in itself, perhaps - but the manner in which he did so had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of either the arguments or the candidates. Kennedy - then the underdog - appeared at the studio looking fresh and suntanned. He declined the offer of make-up for the studio lights so Nixon felt obliged to do the same. But Nixon was pale and sweating profusely, recovering as he was from a recent illness. Kennedy won the debate - in the eyes of those who watched it on television. Those who heard it on the radio thought Nixon had won.
They've had them in US Presidential elections ever since. Among the candidates who have done well out of them include Ronald Reagan, Bush Snr, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. It isn't an argument that would appeal to me but at least in this context I suppose people could claim the personality of the candidate is important. Less so, however, in the context of our parliamentary democracy - yet they insisted on having them here too. If you recall, Nick Clegg did rather well in 2010 only to go from being, in terms of popularity, Churchill to Chamberlain. You'd think that in itself would be enough to illustrate the superficial nature of these media arm-wrestling contests but Clegg certainly didn't seem to get it, which is why he decided it might be a good idea to appear on national television with Nigel Farage, who of course won.
I wouldn't know who has learned anything from this in the rest of the UK but I have yet to read one single comment anywhere in Scotland suggesting that a debate of this nature on the independence referendum would be a truly awful idea. The Yes campaign realised some time ago that Alex Salmond is like Marmite: SNP voters - or most of them anyway - like him a lot; those of us who are neither SNP nor Yes voters can't stand him. As a consequence, one of the most frequent refrains from Yessers is to cry, "It's not about Alex Salmond and the SNP!". The same people invariably insist that it is, however, all about David Cameron and the Tories - which is, of course, why Salmond wants to have one of these daft TV debates with him. The Prime Minister of the UK is usually told by nationalists to "butt out" of the debate over whether Scotland secedes from the Union, except in this context. What they want is a staged event that would be the very incarnation of the SNP narrative about being ruled from London by a posh Tory elite they didn't vote for.
Cameron would lose before he even opened his mouth. I'd like to think that he understands this is the reason he's declined the idiotic invitation to prove he's not 'feart' but for whatever reason, it's a good thing that no such event will take place (hopefully). No so Alistair Darling who will - or perhaps won't - debate with the First Minister prior to the referendum. I am dismayed that so many people on my side of the debate seriously think this would be a good idea. "He'd run rings round Salmond". No he bloody well wouldn't. When he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury and later Chancellor, I half seriously wondered whether he had been chosen for the job because he was so boring that he could deliver quite bad economic news without too much controversy, on account of the fact that his audience had fallen asleep before they'd had a chance to absorb it.
The one pro-union politician who could wipe the floor with Salmond in a debate of this kind is George Galloway and if this doesn't serve to illustrate the point that these events lend themselves to populist pugilism, I don't know what would. Alex Massie has just been tweeting that a Spectator debate in Edinburgh has been host to an unironic audience of lawyers and bankers cheering a barnstorming performance from our George. Such is the nature of these things. It's supposed to be about profound changes to the constitution that will endure long after Salmond, Darling, Cameron and Galloway are worm-food but the fact of the matter is that the short-term politics of personality are the order of the day. If any of these debates go ahead, there will not be one single piece of new information presented. This is one of the many reason why I find the prospect of anyone changing their mind after watching any of this on colosseum TV pretty depressing.