LONDON — It was a political slugfest between the two key leaders in the debate over Scottish independence that nationalists desperately hoped would be a game-changer.
On Tuesday, Alex Salmond, the first minister of Scotland and leader of the nationalist campaign, went head-to-head in his first televised debate with Alistair Darling, the leader of the “Better Together” campaign that favors union with Britain, each making a passionate plea to woo over undecided voters.
The stakes were high with the campaign entering its final lap before Scottish voters cast their ballots on Sept. 18 to decide whether Scotland splits from the United Kingdom. In a recent poll by the group Survation, 46 percent indicated they will vote “no” to independence, and 40 percent “yes.” Fourteen percent — a sizable number to play for — were undecided.
All eyes were on silver-tongued Salmond, who walked into the debate held at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow needing a boost. Much had been made beforehand about the sheer force of Salmond’s personality, with some analysts saying he needed to appear like a credible prime minister in waiting, which for him could mean toning it down a bit.
“It’s a tightrope he has to walk: statesmanlike, not too shouty, make the case, win people over, be charming — he can do all that, but he is also known as being very combative and that’s not what’s going to win over undecided voters,” said Christopher Carman, a professor at the University of Glasgow.
But both Salmond and Darling were combative at times, sparring on a range of issues including currency union, oil revenue, public spending and membership in the European Union.
A snap poll by the Guardian/ICM picked Darling as winning the debate 56 percent to 44 percent. While not a knockout for either side, it’s a blow to the nationalists who had seen this as an easy win for Salmond, a gifted speaker who relishes these kinds of confrontations.
For a politician often accused of lacking passion, Darling, Britain’s former treasury chief, was notably animated.
In a particular feisty exchange, Darling repeatedly pressed Salmond on his “Plan B” for what currency Scotland would use given that the Westminster parties have said that if Scotland walks away, it can’t continue to use the pound sterling. Salmond says that Scotland will continue to use the pound anyway.
When the tables were turned, Darling refused to say whether he agreed with British Prime Minister David Cameron that Scotland could be a successful independent country.
For his part, Salmond emphasized that staying in the union didn’t offer the certainty the unionists claim, noting that the Conservative Party has promised an in-or-out referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union in 2017. He argued that Scotland was a wealthy nation and that with the help of North Sea oil revenue, an independent Scotland would be a more “just society,” freer to pursue the social democratic policies of the left-leaning Scottish National Party.
“No one will ever govern Scotland better than the people who live and work in Scotland,” said Salmond, in his rousing final statements.
This wasn’t the battle Salmond had wanted. He would have preferred to spar with Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, a tarnished brand in Scotland ever since the days when Margaret Thatcher was in charge. Cameron insisted that it was a matter for the people of Scotland and that it was right that Salmond debated with Darling, a Scot, who unlike Cameron can vote in the referendum.
Earlier in the day, the leaders of the three main political parties in Britain promised the devolved Scottish parliament more powers around taxes if they reject independence.
Analysts said that whichever way the vote goes, Scotland will never be the same again.
Carman, the professor, said: “If there is a yes vote on September 18th, it will be the start of negotiations about independence and how that would work. If [there is] a no vote that day, then it’s the start of devo-max and how many powers will come to Scotland. Either way, it’s a new start for Scotland.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of University of Glasgow professor Christopher Carman. The text has been corrected.