In his opening remarks, Alistair Darling tried to ensure the second televised debate on Scottish independence would be all about Alex Salmond. “A good line is not always a good answer”, the leader of the pro-union side said, referring to his opponent’s brand of chutzpah. Encouraged by his strong performance in the first debate three weeks ago, Mr Darling sensed weakness, implying that Scots should ask themselves whether they can rely on someone as opportunistic as the first minister. The problem with this approach: a very different Alex Salmond turned up this time.
Unfortunately for Mr Darling, the debate showed that a good answer is not always a good line. On the subject he believes is the most important of all – the question of which currency an independent Scotland would use – the former chancellor made wise points about how Scotland could end up like Panama, which FT readers know unilaterally uses the dollar. But the undecided voters who could yet decide the referendum will be forgiven for wondering if he was talking about hats.
In contrast, Mr Salmond turned defence into attack. He looked calm and confident, moving in front of the podium to speak up close to the audience, albeit in a way that resembled a faded lounge singer rather than Bill Clinton circa 1992. Responding to the accusation that he has no plan B should the UK refuse a currency union with Scotland, the first minister listed three plan Bs. (Like buses, he said later.)
Mr Darling tried to make the point that using the pound outside a monetary union is not the same thing as keeping the pound as in the present arrangement. Mr Salmond swooped. “They cannot stop us using the pound – the most important revelation of this debate!”, he cried. (It is nothing of the sort, of course. Scotland could opt for sterlingisation. The problem has always been that it would leave the country vulnerable to another’s economic policies and that the financial services sector would be deeply hostile to it.) Mr Darling knew he had the facts on his side but it was no good if they remained there while Mr Salmond was out front.
Buoyant, the nationalist leader moved on to his campaign’s latest main argument: that only independence can ensure the stability of Scotland’s public services, especially the NHS. The idea that secession from a 307 year-old union would lead to more certainty than the status quo is of course absurd. But if Mr Salmond’s side is to win on September 18 he needs not only to “de-risk” independence (on issues such as currency) but also to convince voters that it is the other side that represents a gamble. Somehow, he managed at least to make the case.
Mr Salmond accused Mr Darling of defending a Conservative-led UK government who would destroy the health service in Scotland. Such a claim is baseless but in case anyone was wondering why Mr Salmond was raising it, he turned to Mr Darling: “You are in bed with the Tory party, in bed with the Tory party”.
The rest of the proper debate descended into a cacophony familiar to anyone who has been in an Edinburgh pub at closing time. (The awful moderator did not help the ebb and flow of the debate.) The former chancellor regained composure and Mr Salmond started to look smug, which his advisers try and fail to make him appear. He left many questions unanswered and made some assertions that fact checkers should examine in the light of the morning. Only in their closing statements did Mr Darling and Mr Salmond drag dignity from the wreckage. In sum, the former did as badly as he did well in the first debate: he was off form but not disastrously so.
What of the latter? The nationalist leader will have given his side a steroidal injection of confidence as it enters the final stage of the independence race (postal voting beings this week). And yet the Scots who watched last night will also, I suspect, be no closer to understanding the true nature of Mr Salmond. For arguably the most successful politician of this new media age, he remains an enigma. No biographer has truly figured him out. Neither have Scots. Is he the chancer Mr Darling tried to warn them about? Or the trenchant debater that promised he would negotiate a bright future for an independent Scotland? Or both? What motivates him? Is independence an end in itself or does he genuinely consider it a means to a new Scotland? After last night we are still left guessing who is the real Alex Salmond – but the question may have just become even more important.
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