BBC Debate: Sturgeon spoke up for Scotland

By David Torrance

It didn't really matter how well Nicola Sturgeon performed in last night's opposition leaders' debate. The Scottish first minister could have said nothing at all for an hour-and-a-half and some poll somewhere would still have shown that a majority of Scots thought she'd walked it. For the SNP leader is well liked by most voters in Scotland, and therefore she gets the benefit of the doubt.

That said, in the splendid surroundings of the Methodist Central Hall a stone's throw from the 'Westminster system' nationalists once derided and now want to play a fuller part in, the SNP leader did not need the benefit of the doubt. Sturgeon did extremely well; indeed, probably better than she had performed in the initial seven-way leaders' debate two weeks ago.

There had been speculation Sturgeon would get a tougher ride, Labour having learnt its lessons from two lively Scottish leaders' debates in which the first minister was treated more like an incumbent than an insurgent. That, however, didn't really happen, and the SNP leader teed up her usual themes in an opening statement described as 'powerful' by Team SNP.

It wasn't that, but it covered all the bases: "The SNP will always stand up for Scotland's best interests…we'll build bridges between our different parties to bring about change…a voice for new, better progressive politics at Westminster for everyone." As on April 2nd, it was a cleverly crafted message directed at, of course, voters in Scotland, but also the broader UK electorate.

Given that Sturgeon enjoys a good relationship with the Greens' Natalie Bennett and Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood, the dynamic was always going to be Sturgeon versus Ed, Sturgeon versus Nigel, or everyone versus the Ukip leader. And so it proved. Initially Sturgeon got stuck into the Labour leader, accusing him of being so "thirled" (a good Scottish word) to austerity and "so scared to be bold" that the SNP would have to help him out. This got a big round of applause, and Bennett agreed with Nicola.

Ed Miliband gave as good as he got, hitting back, predictably, with (Scottish) Labour's preferred attack line of the SNP's support for 'full fiscal autonomy' and the £7.6 billion of cuts they claim that would bring. Interestingly, he also acknowledged Sturgeon's "very principled" desire for independence, a markedly more respectful approach than Labour has deployed in the past. "I don't want to break up the country," said Ed, "I want to run it in a different way." Sturgeon asked him where the Labour axe would fall, but he responded by asking "people at home" to judge who had the most realistic plan to tackle the deficit. The first Ed/Nicola exchange was probably a draw.

A Scot in the audience asked about social housing, giving Sturgeon an easy hit when it came to the Tories' planned extension of right-to-buy  ("one of the worst ideas I've ever heard"), although there was much Twitter commentary to the effect that Sturgeon's parents had taken advantage of the original legislation in 1984. Another audience member asked about Trident and again the SNP leader was on firm ground: "I choose childcare, health and education over new Trident weapons any day of the week." Skilfully, Sturgeon also condemned recent Tory attacks on Miliband regarding Trident as "disgraceful" (Ed later made a similar move, reprimanding Farage over UKIP MEP David Coburn's offensive reference to SNP minister Humza Yousaf).

The liveliest exchanges were between Sturgeon and the Ukip leader. She used some old lines ("in your world every problem is caused by immigrants") but also deployed humour, saying "Nigel, you're obviously setting out to win friends and influence people" after he attacked the studio audience (twice). Farage said it was "just astonishing" ("you are, yes," quipped a razor-sharp Sturgeon in response) that the SNP didn't accept basic economics. "I accept demand and supply," replied Sturgeon, "I just don't accept the demand bit is all down to immigrants." The first minister appeared genuinely angry, and all the more effective as a result.

This would have played well in Scotland, although it had little to do with the issues. Asked separately, the majority of Scots would actually agree with Farage on immigration, but at the same time they like seeing their first minister getting stuck into him. Indeed, Sturgeon's language was very carefully chosen. She spoke (twice) of the need for "strong controls on immigration" and even acknowledged there were parts of the UK "where housing and public service are under strain", although she said the solution was to build more houses rather than blame immigrants. Nevertheless, added Sturgeon later, "we don't want to have people coming into the country who have no right to be here". It was a discreet nod to Scots who don't much like the SNP's (generally) liberal line on immigration.

The second Ed/Nicola joust was also one of the debate's high points. Sturgeon repeated her offer to "lock" the Tories out of Downing Street and work with Labour to forge "progressive" change across the UK. Miliband said he had a "fundamental disagreement" with the SNP leader, chiefly her failure to rule out a second referendum on independence (although again, he "respected" her desire to "break up the country"); "It's a no, I'm afraid." Sturgeon fought back saying this was Ed's big chance: "Don't turn your back on it, voters would never forgive you." It was a dramatic line, but again Ed was as strong as he could be in response, even deferential at points.

As the debate drew to a close, two SNP ministers in the Spin Room, John Swinney and Humza Yousaf, looked justifiably content. Their chief had been pitch-perfect, while her aim of further bolstering the SNP's UK credentials had paid off. At one point Nicola Sturgeon said this general election was about "making Scotland's voice heard" and, once again, she had certainly managed that.

David Torrance is Alex Salmond's biographer and the author of The Battle for Britain, an insider's account of the fight for Scottish independence. You can purchase the book here. Follow him on Twitter.