6th August 2014
Most commentators were last night declaring it a draw on points, as Alex Salmond met Alistair Darling in the first televised debate on the country's constitutional future before polling day. In front of a 350 strong audience of voters at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, the leaders of the Yes and No campaigns fought to persuade Scots that they would be better off inside the Union or independent.
While the charismatic SNP leader had been widely expected to outclass the former chancellor of the exchequer, the Labour MP fought back effectively in some of the debate's most spirited exchanges. Darling, never the most lively of politicians but a forensic master of detail, pressed the First Minister on the economy, jobs and Scotland's future defence. Clearly well-prepared, the leader of the No campaign dominated the first round, landing body-blow after body-blow on the First Minister's separation plans under cross-examination. In one of the debate's testiest sequences, on an independent Scotland's currency, Darling demanded, "When I was at the treasury, we expected our politicians do to their sums properly. Where are yours, Alex?"
But heavy-weight Salmond didn't let down his guard. Parrying the blow, the experienced Nationalist debater hit back hard, knocking Darling off balance on social justice and the detail of the Labour Party's plans for more devolution, but failed to land the anticipated knock-out punch on his opponent. Widely perceived as over-confident and a tough, uncompromising debater, the First Minister's performance proved low key and avoided the anticipated low blows, instead talking up the benefits of independence and repeatedly contrasting the "positive" character of the Yes campaign with the "dreich, dreary dismalism of Project Fear."
John Curtice, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, said "this was a respectable performance from the First Minister. But in truth, Alex Salmond failed to deliver the gamechanger tonight which the Yes campaign so dearly need if they are to bridge the gap in the polls and pull ahead."
In the STV spin room, pundit and Salmond adviser, Andrew Wilson commented, "this was a great performance from Alex. Upbeat, optimistic for our future, making the positive case for independence. I like Alistair, but I'm afraid all he had to say tonight was old news, old scare stories, and critically, no new vision for a better, fairer Scotland."
A Better Together spokesman said last night, "Alex Salmond is one of the most skilled political debaters in Scotland, but Alistair more than held his own, despite expectations. This was a below par performance from a struggling politician who knows that Scotland rejects his muddled, uncosted, unwanted plans for separation."