Salmond fails to make the case for Scot independence

Salmond fails to make the case for Scot independence
Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond (left) and former finance minister Alistair Darling shake hands before the debate on Tuesday.

With just six weeks to go before a historic referendum, Scottish independence leader Alex Salmond had hoped to clinch a breakthrough for his cause in Britain's first televised debate on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom.

Mr Salmond, who heads the Scottish National Party, has a reputation as a gifted public speaker, and his supporters, who are trailing those against a split, were banking on a boost from the debate. But he failed to deliver.

Various political observers and polls handed victory in Tuesday night's debate to Mr Salmond's pro-union opponent, former British chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling.

A snap poll by Guardian/ICM Research showed Mr Darling ahead 56 per cent to 44 per cent for Mr Salmond. "I don't think it was Alex Salmond's best night" was how Mr Iain Macwhirter, a political commentator for the pro-independence Sunday Herald, described the outcome.

The pro-union Daily Record described Mr Darling as having "torn into" the usually pugnacious Mr Salmond.

One explanation for the upset is that the anti-independence camp chose its champion well: The silver-haired Mr Darling may come across as a mild-mannered university professor but he has the killer instincts of the roughest political beast.

Like Mr Salmond, Mr Darling is a Scot, yet one who passionately believes in "seeing Scotland prosper" without the need to "erect new barriers where none exist" by leaving the UK, as he put it during the debate.

Mr Darling is also a centre-left politician, a necessity in Scotland, where Britain's ruling Conservatives are disliked.

Unlike Mr Salmond, Mr Darling has had a decades-long political career in government, culminating with the job of British finance minister from 2007 to 2010. The way he handled Britain's worst peacetime financial crisis attracted many plaudits.

And his deep technical knowledge counted for a great deal against Mr Salmond, who came across in the TV debate as an inexperienced national politician with little international exposure apart from trips promoting Scotland's whisky exports.

But there was more to the televised defeat of Scotland's First Minister, as he is formally known, than just personalities. Mr Salmond's biggest problem is that he framed the independence campaign around the argument that, while this is Scotland's "opportunity of a lifetime", as he repeatedly said during the debate, independence is also being portrayed as a painless, cost-free affair: He wants to keep the British Queen as Scotland's head of state and the British pound as the new country's currency.

It did not take long for Mr Darling to tear this concept apart. Pointing out that all politicians in London are united against allowing an independent Scotland to keep the pound, Mr Darling devoted the bulk of his allotted TV time to asking Mr Salmond repeatedly on what his "Plan B" may be.

Aware that most Scottish voters are against the introduction of new money or switching to the euro, Mr Salmond floundered, suggesting at one point that Scotland could continue to use the pound as its currency without London's permission.

Pressed on the question of what kind of independence Scotland would enjoy by operating a currency it cannot control, Mr Salmond repeated his mantra that "no one, no one will do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in this country". It was an emotional appeal which fell flat.

Opinion pollsters discount the impact of such public debates on British electoral results. Still, Mr Salmond needed an unambiguous win in the TV debate to convert the estimated 15 per cent "don't knows" in the referendum scheduled for Sept 18 and he did not get it. He also needed to avoid accusations that he lacked experience, but had these glaringly exposed.

An Ipsos MORI poll released on Tuesday showed that support for independence had risen to 40 per cent, the highest level yet recorded, but that figure was below a persistent 54 per cent who opposed Scotland breaking away.

The case for Scottish independence is now looking weaker after Mr Salmond's defeat in the debate, but with voters' turnout predicted to be heavy and 16- year-olds allowed to vote for the first time, the battle to keep the UK together is still far from over.

This article was first published on August 7, 2014.
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