First Minister Alex Salmond and Better Together Chairman Alistair Darling squared off last night in their last scheduled debate before the Scottish independence referendum in just 24 days’ time. After the first debate, where Alistair Darling won, the second was seen as a pivotal moment in the campaign – and perhaps make or break for the Yes side who were sitting behind in the polls. Fortunately for those of a Yes persuasion, Alex Salmond came out and delivered a far more convincing case for independence and won the debate comfortably.
Alex Salmond made a strong opening statement emphasising the democratic argument for independence, showing that Scotland has shown an increasing appetite for more powers through referendums over the years and that the Scottish Parliament’s success in delivering popular policies whilst keeping to budget warrants one final handover.
Alistair Darling was less certain in starting off, focusing on criticising the perceived weaknesses of Salmond’s arguments on the issue of what currency Scotland will use upon independence. Darling stressed the security that comes with being a part of the UK and that we will have more powers if we vote No.
The next stage of the debate looked at whether Scotland would be financially safer as an independent country. The issue centred largely on currency, as Alistair Darling looked to create the feeling of uncertainty again by saying that the Pound belongs to the UK as a whole rather than the constituent nations and that Scotland would be at risk of financial problems without a central bank. Salmond countered with an oft-used line that “it’s Scotland’s pound too” and that we don’t have to stop using it if we become independent or we could perhaps use a flexible currency arrangement as Denmark or Hong Kong do successfully.
The debate then moved to the related topic of oil, where Darling again played the uncertainty card saying that oil markets were volatile and that oil revenues had begun to fall below their expected returns creating budget uncertainty. He said that Scotland would be too dependent on oil, despite himself saying that it only formed 15% of Scotland’s economy. Alex Salmond went on to show that oil is a massive “bonus” to Scotland rather than a “burden”. He quoted OBR figures, which are among the most pessimistic about Scottish oil prospects, saying that there is as much as £1 trillion in oil available from North Sea fields. Darling disputed the figure by saying that that figure related to commercial revenues, but Salmond countered by showing that a 20% tax on that revenues would result in a £200 billion windfall for Scotland.
The politicians then returned to currency, where Darling was not as strong on the issue as we were usually. Salmond claimed that a Yes vote would be a “mandate from the Scottish people” to send him into independence negotiations with the aim of keeping the pound – a hard line that ensures that we get “what’s best for Scotland and the rest of the UK”. Darling said that the rest of the UK would have to agree to this currency union, and that it would remove key financial powers from Scotland that an independence vote would bring. Crucially, though, Darling said in response to a question from moderator Glenn Campbell that “of course we could use the pound” – showing that the Yes argument is valid at least. Salmond seized upon this and hammered home the point that what the UK Government would be doing by “denying us the pound” would be denying us access to the assets of the Bank of England – who hold 27% of the UK’s debt in security. By denying us the Bank of England, Scotland could not be held responsible for its debt.
Finally moving away from currency, the latest hot button issue of the campaign came to the fore – and that is the NHS. Salmond and the Yes campaign have said that the NHS is under threat as Westminster’s 8% to Scotland’s block grant has meant that the Scottish Government has had to cut back on other services by 12% to maintain the NHS’ level of funding. Already in Wales, the devolved parliament there has had to cut real-terms spending on the health service to balance the books. Scotland has the political control of the NHS, as Alistair Darling pointed out, but if it has less money to fund it as Westminster decides to cut the cloth then it’s a moot point.
An interesting question from the audience directed at Alistair Darling was “why are we not better together already?” He answered by saying that because we were “proud of what we do in Scotland” and that we are more prosperous as part of the UK. He cited the loss of research money, defence jobs and shipyard jobs that might happen if we decide to put up trade barriers with the rest of the UK. Salmond hit back by saying that Westminster policies have already seen industries such as these shrink and said that Westminster “stands indicted” in its’ poor handling of the Scottish economy.
The cross examination is where Salmond really began to assert himself on the debate, as Darling returned to the currency issue – being labelled a “one-trick pony” for doing so – in an attempt to win an argument. Salmond gave Darling his “three plan Bs” in using a flexible currency union, having a fixed exchange rate with the Pound or simply using the Pound anyway as we can’t be stopped. Salmond went on the front foot by asking Alistair Darling if he would accept the “sovereign will of the Scottish people” if they voted Yes, giving Salmond a mandate to argue for the continuing use of the Pound. Darling didn’t answer.
Salmond made much better use of his question time in this debate by asking Darling to set out what job-creating powers that the Scottish Parliament would be granted in the event of a no vote. The answer Darling gave was that the jobs programme would be devolved (despite paying what Salmond called “poverty wages”), work would be guaranteed through training and that staying as part of the UK would save jobs. These amounted to a generous one power given to Scotland in the event of a No vote.
The focus then turned to Scotland’s place in the world, and in particular nuclear weapons. Alasdair Darling argued that keeping Britain’s nuclear deterrent at its current base at Faslane contributes 8,000 jobs to the Scottish economy and has attracted further work on submarines to be built for the Royal Navy in the future. Salmond countered by saying that the £4 billion cost per year for weapons we’ll never have to use was “ludicrous” and not warranted and would be better spend on building the new Scottish Defence Force, which would need surface ships. Darling countered by saying that Salmond was being hypocritical for wanting NATO, which he called a nuclear alliance, while Salmond stated that 20 out of the 28 countries in NATO did not have nuclear weapons.
The final section of the debate was about what would happen after the referendum, and I think both politicians did a good job of setting out the idea that Scotland will need to pull together after what has become a divisive campaign. Alex Salmond even invited Alasdair Darling to help with the negotiations for an independent Scotland in the event of a Yes vote.
The closing arguments made a good job of summing up the debate as a whole. Alex Salmond talked once again of the democratic advantages of independence and that the No campaign as offered almost no positives for Scotland’s future when there certainly should be. Alasdair Darling spent his time talking about uncertainty, but not offering any real incentive to vote No, and harping on about a currency question that was answered in the debate.
So in the end, Salmond was the runaway winner as he confidently and, mostly, calmly showed why Scotland is better off as an independent country while Alistair Darling and the No campaign’s final bastion of the currency argument crumbled. It will certainly give a lift to the Yes campaign going into what is truly the last leg of the campaign, and hopefully it will be enough to hand it the momentum it needs to win on the 18th of September.
There’s just 23 days now until Scotland’s date with destiny, and we’ve never been closer to securing our own future as a sovereign Scottish people.