Former U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling attacked Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond’s currency plans as deluded in a televised debate that drew clashes over the merits versus risks of independence.
Darling repeatedly pressed Salmond, 59, who heads the semi-autonomous Scottish government, for his “Plan B” to keeping the pound, which the U.K. government has said it won’t share with an independent Scotland. Salmond said the U.K. stance was a “campaign tactic” and that Scotland had as much right to retain the currency as the rest of the country.
The exchanges over Scotland’s currency were among the most dramatic of the first live televised debate between the leaders of the respective campaigns for the Sept. 18 referendum on independence. A snap poll found that Darling, 60, who leads the campaign for a No vote, won the encounter. “Alex Takes a Pounding,” was the front-page headline on the Glasgow-based Daily Record newspaper today.
“The most memorable moment was around the currency and that’s where Darling saw his strength and he really went for it,” Mark Diffley, research director at pollster Ipsos MORI, said in an interview on Scottish Television, which hosted the debate in Glasgow last night. As for the nationalists, “I’m not sure they’ll have a great spring in their step,” he said.
The debate marked the home stretch of campaigning before a referendum open only to residents of Scotland that could spell the end of the 307-year-old U.K. While the No camp leads in all polls, the gap has narrowed and nationalists say the momentum is with them in the final six weeks. Most surveys show enough people have yet to make up their mind to tip the balance.
Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader, presented the balllot as a chance to make Scotland more democratic, more socially just and to capitalize on its resources. Twelve of the European Union’s 28 members are of a similar size or smaller than Scotland, he said. The vote is “the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Salmond. “We should seize it with both hands.”
Darling, a lawmaker in Parliament in London for the opposition Labour Party, made the case that it was possible to have a stronger Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh with more powers as part of the U.K. in “the best of both worlds.” The threat posed to pensions, European Union membership and the currency made going it alone too great a risk to contemplate, he said.
“This is not about patriotism, it’s about the future of our country,” said Darling. “If we decide to leave, there’s no going back, there is no second chance.”
‘Stupidity on Stilts’
The former chancellor reserved much his criticism for the nationalist government’s plans to keep the pound in the face of determination by the three main U.K. parties, all of which oppose Scottish independence, to deny the new state a currency union. Such a union without a political pact was “stupidity on stilts,” Darling said, and asked Salmond to “contemplate for a minute that he might be wrong.”
Salmond, who has said previously an independent Scotland would walk away from its 130 billion-pound ($222 billion) share of U.K. debt should the main parties still deny the new state a currency union, said keeping the pound was in the best interests of both countries. U.K. opposition to sharing the currency is a “campaign tactic, not a serious prospect, designed to scare the people of Scotland,” he said.
A survey by Ipsos MORI for STV released before the debate put the No camp’s lead at 16 percentage points, albeit closing. A separate Survation poll published in the Mail on Sunday newspaper on Aug. 3 had the gap at just six points.
Scottish newspapers agreed that Salmond, who was tipped as the better debater, probably failed to make up the deficit with his debate performance. “Darling Draws First Blood,” said the front-page headline in the Glasgow broadsheet The Herald today. “Fiery debate but no clear winner,” said the Edinburgh-based Scotsman. The Scottish Sun declared a stalemate, saying “Scots none the wiser.”
Rather than influence the polls toward one side or the other, the debate may have added to the number of people who haven’t made up their mind yet, according to Chris Carman, a professor of politics at Glasgow University. At least two more encounters are due to follow.
“Did it sway any undecided voters? Probably not,” said Carman. “Did it raise any doubts in people’s heads? Probably.”