SALFORD, UK—The smaller parties were always going to have it easiest in the UK leaders debate, held last night near Manchester. Unlike the parties with a realistic chance at power, they can make expansive promises without the burden of knowing they will have to enact them. But in last night’s debate, some did more than coast; they shone.
Nicola Sturgeon took over leadership of the Scottish National Party after last year’s failed referendum on independence. Thus, last night’s debate will have been the first time many voters outside Scotland encountered her. Sturgeon gave a clear, positive message of strength for Scotland, “friendship” with the rest of the UK, and a preference for more spending over austerity. She had concrete examples of where Scotland’s policies differ from Westminster’s, as with abolishing university tuition fees north of the border.
She took Labour leader Ed Miliband to task, showing little love for the party considered a natural ally of the SNP, and had plenty of choice criticism for Conservative prime minister David Cameron as well. Amid the echo chamber of buzzwords like “fairness” and “hard working people” spouted by the other candidates, Sturgeon’s voice rang out clear. She emerged the winner according to a poll by YouGov—although post-debate polls were by no means unanimous.
Another little-heard voice that will now be listened to more closely was that of Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, the national party of Wales. Wood’s style was markedly different to most of the other leaders. She spoke more slowly, and less stridently—but by no means softly, sticking to her points when overridden by a cacophony of other voices.
Strikingly, Wood admitted to difficulties others brushed off. If the UK remains part of the EU, it will have to get used to migration, she said—and get used to treating migrants with the same respect British people would hope to encounter abroad. When Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party picked on HIV-positive foreigners to make a point about the overstretched National Health Service, Wood told him he should be ashamed of himself. The rejoinder received a first and rare round of applause from the studio audience. During the closing statements she told the audience: “I hope what you’ve heard here tonight won’t fill you with too much despair,” before signing off in Welsh.
After the debate, party representatives including Conservative chancellor George Osborne and former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown descended into the media room, and were quickly surrounded by a sea of iPhones and television cameras. Those speaking for the SNP and smaller parties said, predictably, that the UK was about to see the end of a two-party system. Caroline Flint of Labour reminded reporters that only two people on the stage could end up as prime minister. But those who watched the debate might be wondering for how much longer that will be true.