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30 March 2021updated 26 Jul 2021 6:04am

Anas Sarwar was the star of the Scottish leaders’ TV debate

The new Scottish Labour leader has a reasonableness and decency that hides an inner steel.

By Chris Deerin

First, the good news. If Scotland’s political leaders deliver all they promised during this evening’s BBC debate then it will soon be the most successful country in the history of the human race. New technologies, new industries, more houses, new infrastructure, jobs for young people, jobs for old people, a better NHS, a four-day working week, Universal Basic Income, world-leading mental health services… hurrah…

They won’t, of course. What they will do during this election campaign is continue to talk about whether there should be a second independence referendum, while insisting the other side should stop talking about whether there should be an independence referendum.

There was a lot of that around this evening. Douglas Ross, the relatively new Scottish Tory leader, managed to squeeze in his opposition to a referendum when answering every question, regardless of its subject. Climate change? No to a divisive referendum. NHS? We can’t get sidetracked by independence. Social media abuse? Ah, that’s caused by demands for a referendum.

 [See also: Will Labour or the Conservatives win the battle for second place in the Scottish election?

The debate was the first time that many voters will have encountered Ross, who is not yet an MSP. He began the evening acting not-like-a-Tory, speaking softly, a coy smile playing across his lips, offering earnest thanks to NHS staff, mentioning his “wee boy”. Predictably, the night ended like that scene from Airplane!, with all four of his opponents queueing up to kick lumps out of him.

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Anas Sarwar is even newer. He has been Scottish Labour leader for just over a month, and was arguably the star of the debate. He gave credit to Nicola Sturgeon for her leadership during the Covid pandemic, before taking her to task over the SNP’s record on child poverty and the NHS, for which he blamed (of course) her “blind spot” when it came to independence. Sarwar definitely has something – a reasonableness and decency that hides an inner steel. It would be no surprise if Labour takes back second place from the Conservatives on 6 May.

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[See also: Alex Salmond’s new party Alba makes the Scottish independence movement look like a shambles]

Willie Rennie of the Lib Dems and Lorna Slater of the Greens did what the peripheral parties always do, which is to insist they could do a better job if only the pesky electorate would vote for them. Rennie insisted that in seven years as leader he has “got things done”, which, given his party has had only five MSPs for that entire period, invites the questions “when”, “what” and “how”. Slater has the kind of mid-Atlantic accent that has been missing from the scene since Sheena Easton stopped going on Parkinson. She also does this alarming karate-chop thing with her hand whenever she’s speaking – her fellow leaders might have been glad of the extra social distancing.

Then there was the boss. Sturgeon has had a hell of a 12 months, what with Covid and Salmond and whatnot. “Over the past year, I’ve done my best every single day to lead us through this pandemic,” she said. She seemed tired and a bit flat, perhaps a little off her game, and looked a bit hurt by the jibes of her opponents. 

She said she did indeed want an independence referendum (surprise!), preferably in the first half of the next parliament. Despite this, somehow, she still managed to talk about independence much less than the Tory leader did.

[See also: Our Scottish election poll tracker]