In the first of two scheduled head-to-head debates between the key figures from both independence referendum campaigns, First Minster Alex Salmond and former Chancellor Alistair Darling squared off last night over their competing visions of Scotland’s future.
Over the piece, there was little new from either campaign’s spokesperson, but it did lay bare a lot of the key issues that are still on the minds of Scottish voters in the run up to next month’s big vote.
Salmond opened the debate with a rather unassured performance in is opening statement, seeming to muddle his words and get caught up in the occasion a little. His message was simple though: that the people of Scotland are “best placed to make Scotland better” and that independence would allow us a better chance at true social justice. Darling was a little stronger, and claimed that the certainties of remaining in the UK were far more appealing than the “blind faith” offered by the First Minister.
When the debate came to cross-examination between Salmond and Darling I think that the latter really performed the better.
Darling came out very strongly and gave Salmond a grilling on the all-important issue of the pound. Despite constant questioning of “what’s your Plan B?”, the First Minister would not answer with any plan other than keeping the pound. Salmond quoted Darling from last August, when he said that a currency union between Scotland and the UK would be “logical and desirable”. Other answers from Salmond included showing Darling’s former support of the Euro, although Darling rebutted that he voted against it in Parliament. So there was no movement on the question of the pound, with Darling quoting Salmond and the Yes campaign’s position as “stupidity on stilts” and “foolishness of the worst order”.
Salmond’s strategy against Darling was slightly different. He took on slightly more unusual topics, seizing upon quotes from key figures in the No campaign and UK Government with the idea of ridiculing their positions. He asked why Better Together had called themselves “Project Fear”, an off-hand comment made by campaign director Blair MacDougall last year that has since been used by Yes, which Darling brushed off as a reactionary comment. Salmond then quoted Andy Burnham as saying that Scotland would have to “drive on the right side of the road” when independent and Philip Hammond who claimed that Scotland would be “more vulnerable to attacks from outer space” apart from the UK. Darling dismissed these comments and criticised Salmond for not engaging with the issues the Scottish people wanted to hear. I’m personally a fan of Alex Salmond, and I think he could have put Darling under a lot more pressure with real questions about why Scotland should choose to stay in an unequal partnership rather than pick on an already unpopular Westminster establishment.
Darling was put under more pressure as Salmond changed tack towards the end of his questioning though. Salmond asked Darling if he agreed with David Cameron in that Scotland “could be a successful independent country”. It was now Darling’s turn to duck and dodge the question, with Salmond being equally unrelenting in asking his question.