The Campaign for Scotland's Future

This week’s second debate on Scottish Independence between the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond; and the leader of the pro-union Better Together Campaign, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling saw Mr Salmond dominate. The previous debate had left the pro-independence campaign with numerous questions to answer, most notably on the currency.

Mr Salmond was widely considered to have dominated the debate.  An instant Guardian/ICM poll of Scots who had watched the debate found that Mr Salmond was considered to be the victor, by a 71% to 29% margin. In contrast, the ICM poll for the first debate found Alistair Darling had won by 56% to 44%.

Although there have been no full polls on voting intention since the debate, commentators are sceptical that the First Minister’s performance in the second debate will have significantly altered the gap between the two sides. The latest poll, a YouGov poll for The Times last week found that ‘Yes’ was on 43%, with ‘No’ on 57% (excluding ‘Don’t Knows’).

Focus of the debate
The debate focused on currency, oil revenues, welfare and the NHS, defence, and future devolution in the event of a ‘No’ vote.

Mr Salmond attempted from the outset to offer an answer to Mr Darling’s question on his ‘Plan B’ for the currency in the event that the rest of the UK rejects a currency union.  Mr Salmond argued that there were three possible Plan B, including sharing sterling without a formal currency union, and establishing a new currency. Mr Salmond said: “I set out the options very clearly – three Plan Bs for the price of one. They are just like buses… you expect one and then three turn up at once. We don’t need permission to use our own currency. The argument actually is that they will deny us the assets of the Bank of England. The reason that won’t happen is that if you deny us the financial assets, then the UK will get stuck with all of the liabilities.”

Mr Darling said: “You are taking a huge risk if you think it is just all going to fall into place. I think the currency union would be bad for Scotland because our budget would have to be approved not by us, but what would then be a foreign country. It wouldn’t be best for the rest of the country either.”

Mr Salmond was keen to position Independence as essential for protecting Scotland from ‘Tory welfare cuts’. Mr Salmond argued that the only way to protect the NHS and to stop welfare cuts was to ensure that the people of Scotland always got the government they voted for. Mr Salmond said: “Yes we’ve got troubled economic times, but the mark of a government is when you are in difficult economic times you don’t take it on the disabled and you don’t take it out on families with children and you don’t impose the bedroom tax, which must be the most ludicrous tax of all time.” It is clear that the pro-independence campaign’s strategy is to push this line aggressively in the final three weeks of the campaign.

The majority of commentators in today’s media have suggested that Mr Salmond ‘won’ the debate, and spoken critically of Mr Darling’s performance.

Nick Robinson, the BBC’s Political Editor, noted that: “I doubt whether many of the genuinely undecided will have sat through all this evening’s exchanges or have learned that much. The key to the outcome though will be what those voters, many of them traditional Labour supporters in the west of Scotland, fear most – the economic uncertainty of becoming an independent country or the fear of another Tory government in Westminster.”

Magnus Linklater, the former Editor of The Scotsman, writing for The Times argues that: “The argument remains – that independence requires a leap of faith, while the bread and butter of the Scottish economy still depends on a stable union. The last weeks of the campaign may well turn into a heart against head debate, and the Salmond mantra – that a “yes” vote will be “the sovereign will of the Scottish people” – is a powerful card to play. Enough to win the final trick? Who can say?”.

Michael White writing in The Guardian concluded that: “If he wins, Salmond said, he’d offer Darling a place on Team Scotland’s negotiating group. Nice one, Alex. He did better than last time. But no knock-out punch.”

What next?
The referendum will take place on 18 September, and postal voting begins this week. The question remains whether the significant improvement from Mr Salmond in the second debate will be enough to persuade those voters who are still undecided. With significant hurdles still to overcome it seems unlikely that the nationalists will be victorious; however, Scotland’s future is still uncertain.