Scottish Independence: Darling flounders in debate

Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond. Picture: Comp
Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond. Picture: Comp
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THE Yes campaign was today celebrating a boost after Alex Salmond made a convincing comeback to win his second televised clash with Alistair Darling.

A snapshot poll of Evening News readers found almost 70 per cent believed the First Minister – who suffered a surprise defeat in the first debate – had come out better this time, while only 15.7 per cent said Mr Darling had won and 13.8 per cent judged it a tie.

That was echoed by an instant ICM poll which showed a majority believed Alex Salmond had won the debate – with 71 per cent saying the First Minister was the victor against 29 per cent for Alistair Darling.

A similar survey after the first head-to-head debate made Mr Darling the winner by 56 per cent to 44 per cent.

Polling guru Professor John Curtice said it remained to be seen whether Mr Salmond had done enough to “inject some degree of momentum” into the Yes campaign and persuade voters to back independence.

He said: “This was a much better evening for Mr Salmond than the first debate a few weeks ago. I certainly think there were a couple of points in the debate where he clearly had Mr Darling in trouble.

“What was remarkable about this debate was how little time was spent on the issues we know are likely to switch voters’ minds and that is what are the prospects for Scotland’s economy, either independence or in the union.

“What I think it certainly will do is raise the hearts of Yes supporters.”

Last night’s debate, broadcast across the UK, came just ahead of the first postal ballots being sent out today.

It covered issues including the currency, oil revenues, the NHS, Trident and welfare reform and saw impassioned contributions from both men.

Mr Darling returned to the question of what currency an independent Scotland would use and repeatedly pressed the First Minister to set out his Plan B if a formal deal could not be agreed with the rest of the UK to allow an independent Scotland to retain the pound.

Mr Salmond insisted he had outlined alternative options – “three Plan Bs for the price of one”–- but refused to say which he preferred.

He said he was seeking a “sovereign mandate” from voters to share the pound. And he added: “If I were to go and argue for second best, that’s what I’d get.”

Mr Darling acknowledged that Scotland could use the pound regardless of whether Westminster agreed to a currency union.

He said: “Of course we can use the pound 
. . . we could use the rouble, we could use the dollar, we could use the yen. We could use anything we want.”

Mr Salmond claimed Mr Darling’s acceptance that Scotland could not be stopped from using the pound was “the most important revelation of this debate”.

Mr Darling refused to say which currency option he believed would be best if Scotland did become independent. “They are all second best,” he said.

Blair Jenkins, chief executive of the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign, said afterwards: ‘This was an overwhelming victory for Yes. The First Minister’s message was clear, optimistic and passionate and spelled out a no-nonsense message of the positives and opportunities of independence.”

But Better Together campaign director Blair McDougall said: “Alex Salmond still can’t give a credible answer on currency. While the world was watching he even went as far as to threaten to default on our debts.”

The Evening News survey – conducted via social media and not a scientific poll – suggested undecided voters had moved to Yes as a result of the debate. Asked about their voting intentions before the debate, 51.8 per cent said Yes, 28.7 per cent No, with 19.4 per cent undecided. After the debate, 66.2 per cent opted for Yes, 30 per cent No with just 3.7 per cent still undecided.

In his opening statement, Mr Salmond said: “We are a rich nation, a resourceful people. We can create a prosperous nations and a fairer society, a real vision for the people of Scotland. This is our time, it’s our moment, let us do it now.”

But Mr Darling told the audience: “The basic difference between Alex Salmond and me is this, my first priority is to build a fairer and better society. His first priority is to create a separate state no matter what the risks and what the cost.”

Mr Darling said there was a history over-optimistic forecasts about North Sea oil revenues. “In the past couple of years the amount of revenue we have got from the North Sea has been £5 billion less than was expected,” he said.

“That is equivalent to more than we spend on schools in Scotland and almost half of what we spend on the health service.”

But Mr Salmond hit back: “The No campaign are the only people in the world who argue that the possession of substantial amounts of oil and gas are somehow a curse as opposed to an asset for a country. The reality is that North Sea oil and gas will be with us way beyond 2050.”

The health service was another key issue in the debate. Mr Darling accused the First Minister of running a “scare campaign” by suggesting current UK coalition policies meant the NHS in Scotland was at risk if there was a No vote. But Mr Salmond said: “Under devolution we can’t be forced to privatise the health service because we’ve got operational control of it, but we don’t have financial control of it, and that is a serious problem.”

OPINION

By Colin Fox, national spokesman of the Scottish Socialist Party

I missed the last live TV debate where Alex Salmond was said to have ‘under-performed’, I was on holiday. But there can surely be no doubt he won this “return leg” hands down. His naturally combatitive style had returned, walking out from behind the lecturn, his script was dotted with upbeat references to “this extraordinary time . . . this golden oportunity for the people of Scotland . . . best placed to make the right decisions . . . and a hugely exciting and energising campaign”.

In contast Alistair Darling’s remarks were noted above all for their timidity, their caution and risk averse emphasis. He mentioned “threats”, “costs”, “gambles”, “volatility” and “insecurities” but failed to offer a positive vision. More alarmingly perhaps for Better Together strategists the former Chancellor was also rather gaffe-prone. He conceded ‘Of course Scotland can use the pound’. And he made the mistake of returning once too often to the currency issue leading Salmond to accuse him of being a ‘one- trick pony’. The audience at Kelvingrove Museum and viewers around the country seemed to groan in unison. But in conceeding ‘This [referendum] is not about him [Alex Salmond]’ he has blunted the instrument which No activists have been using above all others to tell Labour voters in particular that this referendum is in fact ‘all about Alex Salmond’.

The polls will reveal in due course whether this second live TV debate has changed people’s minds, but it has certainly put a spring in the step of Yes campaigners with three weeks to go.

OPINION

By Ewan Aitken, former Labour leader of Edinburgh City Council

Alex Salmond’s performance in last night’s debate with Alistair Darling was a vast improvement on their previous outing.

His strategy was clear; conflate a Tory- run Westminster with England, suggest the future of the NHS is on a shoogly nail and trap Alistair Darling into appearing to say Scotland could use the pound.

But whether he will have reached out beyond the core vote is another question altogether.

There is a fundamental difference between using the pound with no lender of last resort and being part of a currency union. The two are not the same; though I predict the Yes campaign will imply that they are.

Alistair Darling was starting in a different place. He’d confounded expectations against an over-confident opponent in the previous debate. Achieving that again with a more prepared opponent nursing a bruised ego was always a tougher call. Sticking to currency issues was effective. The oil debate was a bit more “statistics as political hand grenades” which is never attractive especially as I am one of those “eco types” who thinks the best thing we can do with our oil is leave it the ground.

I think Trident is evil. We must get rid of it. Not just from Scotland but from the whole of the UK. Alex Salmond gave away his true colours when he said “I want to rid Scotland of Trident”. Not this island, or the UK, but just Scotland. Dumping Trident on your neighbours is not the same as getting rid of Trident.

The Yes campaign will feel their man regained some lost ground. But the real question from last night debate is will it give either side the elusive “big Mo” and that remains unanswered.

Readers’ Panel: ‘Darling was struggling. Floating voters will be moving to Yes’

MEMBERS of our Evening News readers panel gave their views on the big debate and how it would affect voting intentions.

Jonathan Law, 41, a city centre shop owner from Brunstane, who was previously undecided, said the debate had persuaded him to vote Yes: “It was like the famous boxing contest between Joe Louis against Max Schmeling – Lewis lost the first round because he hadn’t done his homework, he just thought he would win because he was the world champion and he lost. But by the second fight he’d done his homework and he won it in the first round. Alex Salmond came back fighting after last time and he gained massive ground in this debate. It was Alistair Darling who was struggling. I think floating voters will have been moving across. I’m English and I know people in the north east of England who would love to have independence from London. It’s about being able to paddle your own boat.”

• VERDICT: Alex Salmond swung it – “I think a Yes vote might be the answer.”

Tina Woolnough, 51, a parents campaigner from Blackhall: “They were both very argumentative and kept talking over each other. And there was a lot of stalling going on. Alistair Darling seemed a bit hysterical at times. And he is stuck sharing the campaign with the Tories – being Better Together with the Conservatives is not a good thing. A lot of questions have still not been answered. If the No campaign would put on the table the powers Scotland would get in the event of a No vote, I would be interested in considering a No vote.

• VERDICT: Alex Salmond came off better – “I’m a bit more Yes than I was, but still a bit frightened.”

Justin Bickler, 15, pupil at Boroughmuir High School: “It was entertaining and thought-provoking. Alex Salmond just barged in a lot of the time. He gave some answers, but a lot of things people want answered still weren’t. There are no real answers on the whole currency issue – the fact he has three Plan Bs is a bit worrying.”

• VERDICT: Alistair Darling answered more of the questions and was more mature – “I’m voting No.”