Ian Swanson: Next round of independence debate

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THE verdicts have been pronounced, the post-fight analysis has been carried out – now for the rematch. Following Tuesday’s clash between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, the two men are scheduled to face each other again in a second televised debate later this month.

After the surprise victory for Mr Darling in the STV contest – an instant poll made him the winner by 56 per cent to 44 – both sides have reason to be eager for another showdown.

The former Chancellor and Labour MP for Edinburgh South West defied his “boring” image when he came out fighting. Described variously as “passionate”, “shouty” and “extremely animated”, he put Mr Salmond firmly on the spot over the currency and made him look petty and trivial when he started talking about driving on the other side of the road and invasions from outer space.

Mr Darling seemed evasive when Mr Salmond asked whether he agreed with David Cameron that Scotland could be a prosperous independent country. Having decided to be measured and non-aggressive, he seemed unable to adjust his style to respond to the unexpectedly feisty performance by his opponent.

The Yes camp insisted it was happy with the debate because the same poll which made Mr Darling the winner also showed support for independence increased from 45 per cent at the beginning of the debate to 47 per cent at the end – a shift echoed in the Evening News readers’ survey which saw Yes support rise from 47 to 54 per cent. Commentators were almost unanimous in awarding victory to Mr Darling. But many viewers who tuned in hoping to learn more about what independence might actually mean declared themselves disappointed.

There is little doubting the public interest in the referendum. STV claimed a combined TV and online audience of 1.7 million and hailed it as the best-watched political debate in Scotland for ten years.

But what was billed as a key moment in the final countdown to the referendum, an opportunity for undecided voters to hear the crucial arguments direct from the top people – does not seem to have done its job. One unhappy voter said afterwards he felt even more undecided than before.

So what of the next round? Mr Salmond is likely to welcome another chance to prove himself, while Mr Darling will hope to build on his success.

If either is going to win over undecided voters they will have to offer some answers to the many questions people still have.

Mr Salmond needs a more convincing response to questions on the currency. And Mr Darling must come up with better answers on exactly what more powers Holyrood can expect if there is a No vote – a tricky one, because the pro-UK parties cannot agree.

Mr Salmond’s advisers insist he won’t be changing his style. They say he gave up shouting and pointing for the 2007 Holyrood election and now knows it is more important to communicate in a way that speaks to voters rather than seeking to win every debating point.

Nevertheless, he is likely to want an opportunity to try to get the better of Mr Darling. It could mean the next debate goes over much of the same ground again. Talks are ongoing about yet more televised clashes before September 18.