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Scotland Decides ’14: Darling draws first blood by homing in on Salmond weak spot

The claws were out for Salmond and Darling’s first live televised debate. Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The leaders of the rival campaigns in Scotland’s independence referendum battle have clashed in the first televised debate ahead of the September 18 poll. So, who came out on top?

David McCausland, Head of Economics, University of Aberdeen

The live debate on Scottish independence between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling will undoubtedly kick start discussion around the country. But it was ultimately unsatisfying. Nothing in the way of new detail was revealed, and key questions remained unanswered.

On balance, Alastair Darling won on the night. He correctly identified the currency question as Salmond’s weak point, and repeatedly hammered him on that issue. Salmond provided no answers. There was no plan B. Even if the UK agreed to Scotland joining the pound, what this means is that Scotland would be handing over control of monetary policy to Westmister. George Osborne would be setting the interest rate that affects the mortgages and loan repayments of the Scottish people.

This would be an odd concept of independence, and constitutes one of the strangest contradictions of Salmond’s stance. Worse still, monetary union implies some degree of fiscal union. This makes the claims of being able to have an independent fiscal policy somewhat suspect. Seemingly everything rested on scrapping Trident, which though many may support, would be unable alone to deliver the kind of fiscal expenditure envisaged.

At the end of the day, Salmond made a strong case resting on Scottish people having control of their own destiny. This was a strategy to tug at the heart strings, but also looked very vulnerable to questions of detail. Salmond really needs to address these issues - particularly on currency - if he is not to be charged with sidestepping. What Darling needs to work on is a more positive vision, and a better explanation of how devo-max can deliver. Perhaps then future debates can hone in on important questions and elicit new answers, unfettered by a distracting studio audience.

Neil Blain, Professor of Communications, University of Stirling

So it’s not only Andy Murray having a wobble in the rankings. It was strange to see the First Minister’s serve so far off form. Bernard Ponsonby, the mediator, had to get off the umpire’s chair now and then to produce a decent match, by serving to Darling himself at some points in this debate. The umpire won in straight sets.

Whichever Yes for Scotland team member thought up jokes about driving on the right and space invasion should learn to let a script sit overnight and edit it in the morning over strong coffee. Salmond barely touched on what the Scottish electorate might want to say “No Thanks” to, if Scotland remains in the UK. The Yes campaign hasn’t learned the lesson of how negative campaigning works; a more urgent criticism than the No campaign’s negativity, which Alistair Darling embodied throughout. Although, on balance Darling performed more naturally than his opponent and was better on much of the detail.

But the dark, unexplored hinterland of what we might be “Better Together” with remains unlit. The Conservative Party’s drift even further to the right, with a third of English Tory voters favouring a governance pact with UKIP in 2015, never figured. The openly anti-European stance of powerful Tory figures like Philip Hammond got barely a mention. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson belonged as subjects of this debate, since they may be the political future we’re “together” with, but they didn’t show up.

London’s domination of our economic world didn’t get a mention, nor the vast resources spent on its infrastructure. The aims of the northern English cities to join hands across the Pennines may shove Scotland further down the Westminster pecking order. As a strategic consideration of the future, the debate barely got beyond the clichés which Salmond and Darling were supposed to avoid.

There was no detailed vision of the long term at all, which must have pushed the undecided more toward No than Yes. Both men were unsettled by the occasion, but the audience did well. And so did STV mainly, except for their failing livestream. Though the set looked a bit hand-knitted, and their first visit to the Spin Room so early on in the proceedings was daft. Not counting the moderator, I scored a win against expectations for Alistair Darling, on the question which won’t go away: it’s the currency. And we’re not stupid.

Michael Keating, Professor of Politics, University of Aberdeen

Alex Salmond needed a strong, uplifting message in order to win this debate and sway the undecided voters. He failed to provide it. The decision to come with a list of quotations from No supporters was a major mistake. Salmond wasted his opportunity to pin Darling down, taking up valuable time with trivial point-scoring, which Darling was able to wave aside. Salmond was then put on the defensive over the pound, a predicable line of attack from the No side.

Darling was given an easy ride over the effects of a No vote, only showing himself uncomfortable when pressed on exactly what new powers would be given to Scotland. Salmond failed to exploit Better Together’s weakest point, which is their contention that Scotland cannot pay its own way but that UK taxpayers will continue to pay their bills.

Neither side was able to show a positive vision for Scotland, to show that – whether in or out of the union – it can and will pay its own way. The Yes side’s vision of Scotland as a small independent and prosperous nation remains underdeveloped. The No campaign cannot tell us how they would use new powers to achieve the same ends without independence.

Both sides must be aware that there appears to be little movement of voters between the Yes and No camps, but that the Don’t Knows are beginning to make their minds up. Their greatest concern is uncertainty, but neither side has managed to reassure them. This was a victory on points to Darling, but it is unlikely that it will sway many votes.

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