Debate takes Scottish party leaders out of their comfort zone

Scotland Debates: STV's televised leaders debate at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/Press Association Images

It can only be good for democracy when politicians are taken out of their comfort zone.

That was what happened tonight during the STV debate which we showed on here on ITV Border.

The early exchanges followed the expected pattern, the five leaders sticking to their pre-prepared lines.

On tax we learned four parties want to put your taxes up to varying degrees - the Greens, the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems. Only the Tories want to keep taxes as they are, though they don't want to cut them, for now at least.

What was more revealing was when the politicians got to question each other. Because of the format, where there was a time limit, it was better - dare I say it - than First Minister's questions.

They had to ask concise questions, and give (relatively) short answers. All the other parties ganged up on Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader, and she took something of a pounding. She looked uncomfortable when challenged on why she apparently did not object to the (now abandoned) UK government benefit cuts.

Leader of the Scottish National Party Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Labour Party leader Kezia Dugdale ahead of Scotland Debates Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, forced her to explain her plans to end free prescriptions and end 'free' tuition fees for all University students. Ms Davidson's argument that the money saved would go on extra health provision, or helping poorer students got somewhat lost.

On the other hand, the Tory leader got the biggest round of applause when she challenged Ms Sturgeon over the SNP promise there would not be another independence referendum "for a generation".

Ms Sturgeon got applause too when she said it was for the people to decide Scotland's future, but the exchanges on the constitution were as polarising as ever.

Willie Rennie the Lib Dem leader got a hard time for his party's role in the last UK coalition with the Tories, but he said, in terms, they did it for the good of the country.

Kezia Dugdale, Labour's leader, took some flack from Ms Sturgeon for her party joining with the Tories in the pro-UK 'Better Together' campaign. But in turn Ms Dugdale was able to put pressure on Ms Sturgeon over the SNP's tax powers.

Labour want to put a penny on all income tax bands, the SNP only not to pass on the increase in thresholds introduced by George Osborne in his recent budget.

Ms Sturgeon was also put under pressure by Patrick Harvie, the Green's leader and her fellow independence campaigner, over her tax powers. Why did they campaign together for an end to the Union if she was then so timid with the tax powers Holyrood has now won, he asked, in a 'more in sorrow than anger' kind of way.

Ms Sturgeon stuck resolutely to her line that she was asking some Scots - in larger houses and earning a bit more - to pay for better services. But it's worth pointing out that her claim the SNP plans will raise £2 billion is a figure over the next Holyrood parliament.

And then it was back to the constitution, a section which had the feeling of deja vu all over again to coin an old - bad - joke.

The debate heated up again, with talk of a second referendum, black holes in Scotland's finances and the like.

Ms Sturgeon confirmed that her party's manifesto would "in essence put the decision in the hands of the people", a statement which got a mixed response.

Ms Dugdale was adamant that her party would have a commitment not to have a second referendum in its manifesto. And she refused to say if she would accept the SNP's manifesto pledge - as outline by Ms Sturgeon - gave the Nationalist's a second referendum mandate.

So in the end it's back to the constitution, as ever in Scottish politics.What we do now know is what effect, if any, continued debate on the constitution, and specifically a second referendum, will have - on any of the parties.