Alex Salmond turns to Zsa Zsa Gabor

Zsa Zsa Gabor
Image caption Zsa Zsa Gabor was the first minister's guru of choice

How to sum up the televised encounter? Today, away from the eager vacuity of spin, Alex Salmond turned to a great icon of the 20th century for inspiration.

Gandhi perhaps? JFK? Nelson Mandela? Not quite.

Mr Salmond's guru of choice was Zsa Zsa Gabor.

The FM's view of his opponent, Alistair Darling, was that "macho doesn't prove mucho".

Apparently, Mr Salmond reckons that finger-jabbing repetition of a question about "Currency Plan B" does not a debate make.

Which, when you think about it, is rather intriguing, given that the common presumption in advance was that it was Mr Darling who should fear hectoring from t'other side.

Dog performance

A presumption I did not share, having noted - also in advance - that Mr Darling has his tumultuous side. Just recall that shadowy half-beard he used to sport, defiantly.

Still, Team Darling had been assiduous in playing down their man's prospects.

To listen to them, you heard an echo of Dr Johnson assessing the issue of a dog walking on its hind legs: the wonder being not that the dog performed well but that it achieved the feat at all.

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Image caption Mr Darling and Mr Salmond clashed on live TV

Today, of course, they are turning to another canine metaphor, suggesting that Mr Salmond was like the Great Detective's dog which unaccountably failed to bark, falling short on answers and argument.

Mr Salmond, needless to say, does not share that interpretation.

He relies upon his direct pitch to the voters to the effect that independence guarantees that the people of Scotland get the government they choose. Always.

Did we learn much from last night's debate? In truth, relatively little. That is not to complain in the slightest about the debate but to reflect a reality of this prolonged campaign.

We heard complaints from folk that they were not getting detail. Fair point - although, again, the competing offers are out there. Last night was more about evangelising the issues.

Did Alex Salmond stumble?

Even a few supporters of independence voiced a little uncertainty about his choice of interrogation topic when he quizzed Mr Darling on some of the more entertaining claims about independence - such as driving on the right and losing pandas.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Alex Salmond pressed Mr Darling on whether Scotland could succeed under independence

One can understand the point.

He was trying to suggest, more generally, that Better Together (aka Project Fear) could not be trusted on major matters, given their diverse spin on minor ones. (Not, of course, that driving on the distaff side of the road would be minor, unless fully explained in advance, but you get my point . . .)

Perhaps, though, a more direct onslaught on the issue of more powers in the event of a "No" vote might have been more productive.

Certainly, Mr Darling appeared to stumble somewhat when challenged on that point, all too briefly, by the estimable Bernard Ponsonby.

Other points of note?

Mr Darling's dramatic declaration that he was "stuck" with Mr Salmond as FM, despite his voting proclivity.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Alistair Darling sought to press the Scottish first minister on the currency of an independent Scotland

His voice quavered, his finger rose like a latter-day Banquo. Good theatre - but psephologically meaningless.

As Mr Salmond noted, the point was that more Scots had backed him than Labour.

Then there was Mr Salmond's relentless pursuit of his opponent on the issue of whether he agreed with David Cameron that Scotland could succeed under independence. (It was a big night for relentless pursuits.)

The question contained two underlying issues, neither palatable to Mr Darling.

One, could indy work? Two, are you hand in glove with the Tories? Again, effective theatre, if indecisive.

Mr Salmond was perhaps at his most effective when he set his opponent aside, physically and metaphorically, by abandoning his rostrum and moving stage front to address the audience directly.

His voice dropped a register, his tone softened.

My congratulations to Bernard and STV for staging an intriguing event.

More to come - including, of course, an utterly splendid debate on the Beeb later this month.