Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling debate Scottish independence in the Kelvingrove Art Galleries in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Salmond triumphs over Darling – but will it make any difference?

The Scottish First Minister skilfully outplayed the Better Together head, but his victory may count for little. 

After being defeated by Alistair Darling three weeks ago, and with the Yes side still trailing in the polls, Alex Salmond needed a clear win in tonight's Scottish independence debate - and a win was exactly what he got (a Guardian/ICM poll awarded him victory by 71-29 per cent). From his opening statement onwards, Darling was hesistant and stilted, perhaps unnerved by his new champion status. Salmond, by contrast, with little to lose, skilfully deployed every weapon in the nationalist armoury. 

Having been skewered by the Better Together head on the currency question in the first debate, he smartly changed tack. Rather than dismissing Westminster's pledge to veto a currency union as "bluff and bluster", he demanded a "mandate" to negotiate for one, casting Darling as a man unprepared to accept the will of the people. While again refusing to reveal his "plan B" (only adding to the confusion when he boasted he was offering "three plan Bs for the price of one"), he turned the debate to his advantage by forcing Darling to concede "of course we can use the pound". By this, the former chancellor merely meant Scotland could use sterling without permission (an option that would leave it without a central bank and a lender of last resort), but Salmond was astute enough to spin this as a dramatic concession from the "scaremongering" No side. Expect to see Darling's words emblazoned on Yes posters across the country. 

After failing to shift the polls in his favour by making a positive case for independence, Salmond turned negative tonight. He warned that the preservation of Westminster rule would threaten the NHS and decried food banks, the "bedroom tax" and Trident. It was low politics: health is already fully devolved to the Scottish parliament and Darling is no supporter of welfare cuts, but it worked. The Better Together head found himself forced to make excuses for the status quo and struggled to articulate an alternative vision. He falsely claimed that NHS privatisation did not take place under Labour (it did, as Andy Burnham has conceded) and that funding for the service was guaranteed to rise over the coming years (it isn't). "You're in bed with the Tories!", cried Salmond, a line that will resonate in a country where, famously, there are more giant pandas (two) than Conservative MPs (one). 

All of the Unionist parties are agreed that more powers will be transferred to Holyrood in the event of a No vote, but tonight the vagueness of their words caught up with Darling. Repeatedly challenged by Salmond to name three job-creating powers that they were offering the Scottish parliament, he floundered, prompting the First Minister to declare: "You just made a wonderful case for voting Yes in this referendum." 

Salmond got the win he needed, then, but at this stage of the campaign the question is whether it will make any difference. TV debates rarely determine the outcome of elections and referendums (recall how swiftly "Cleggmania" faded in 2010) and the undecided, ever more sceptical of both sides' propaganda, may well have been turned off by Salmond's boisterous style. But with three weeks to go, tonight's result will re-energise the Yes campaign and give them hope that the SNP leader can yet again snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. 

Update: It looks like my instincts were right. The ICM poll recorded the same level of support for independence after the debate (49-51) as before it. If those numbers make the race look remarkably close, it's worth noting the caveat added by the pollster: "It should be stated this this sample was pre-recruited on the basis of watching the debate and being willing to answer questions on it immediately after the debate ended. While we have ‘forced’ it via weighting to be representative of all Scots, it SHOULD NOT be seen as a normal vote intention poll as it is premised on a different population type i.e the profile and nature of Scots who watched the debate is different to a fully nationally representative sample of Scots."

In other words, Yes voters may be more likely to have watched the debate and to have answered questions on it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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