THE LEADERS IN the battle for and against Scottish independence clashed in a heated live television debate tonight, six weeks ahead of a historic referendum on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom.
First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), went head-to-head for the first time with Alistair Darling, a fellow Scot and leader of the “Better Together” campaign.
Darling, who was Britain’s finance minister during the 2008 economic crisis, pressed the SNP leader early on his crucial claim that an independent Scotland would continue to use the pound sterling — something London says will not be possible.
Salmond insisted this would not be a problem, and hit back by asking Darling repeatedly whether he believed Scotland could successfully be an independent country, a question his opponent dodged.
Their exchanges became increasingly heated, and at one point Salmond was accused by an audience member of being “snide” and giving a worrying impression of what an independent Scotland would be like.
Members of the public audience heckled, booed and cheered the two men throughout, prompting the moderator to ask them to show respect and allow the politicians to be heard.
Both campaigns had said the debate could be a turning point in the campaign for the 18 September referendum, when four million Scots will vote on their future.
But in the end neither side delivered a knock-out blow.
The pro-independence “Yes” campaign in particular had seen the encounter as a vital opportunity to use Salmond’s talent for debating to close a stubborn gap in opinion polls.
A poll tracker by the Financial Times newspaper currently puts the Yes vote at 36%, 10 points behind those who would vote No to independence. Some 16% remain undecided.
There were a few moments of levity, sparked by Salmond’s complaint that for much of his life, Scotland had voted for left-of-centre parties but received a Conservative government.
The SNP leader quipped that there were more pandas in Edinburgh Zoo (two) than Scottish Tories in the House of Commons in London (one).
Darling responded by noting that he was Scottish but did not vote for the SNP. “I didn’t vote for him but I’m stuck with him,” he quipped.
‘Opportunity of a lifetime’
In his opening speech, Salmond argued that Scottish people should be able to decide their own future, a dream that could not be achieved under the current system of devolution.
“My case this evening is this: no one, no one will do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in this country,” he said.
On 18 September we have the opportunity of a lifetime. We should seize that opportunity with both hands.
But Darling warned of the risks of going it alone and argued that Scotland would pay too high a price to leave the union, saying:
Remember this — if we decide to leave there is no going back, there is no second chance.
Ahead of the debate, the leaders of Britain’s three main parties vowed to hand over more powers to Scotland’s devolved government if voters decide to stay in the 307-year-long union with England.
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat chief Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, signed a joint declaration that would give Edinburgh more tax-raising control.
Darling said that with these new powers Scotland could have the “best of both worlds” — more control and the support of a strong United Kingdom.
However, one of the key players in the campaign for Scottish devolution in the late 1990s, retired clergyman Kenyon Wright, branded the promise of new powers a “desperate bribe”.
Scotland currently looks after its own education, health, environment and justice, but the UK parliament in London still decides defence and foreign policy.
The debate was not shown on television in England, but Scottish broadcaster STV made it available worldwide online. However, many viewers complained that the website crashed continually.
Read: “It’s about putting Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hand” – Yes campaign looking to close referendum gap >