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.

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism