Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling debate Scottish independence in the Kelvingrove Art Galleries in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Show Hide image

Have voters turned against globalisation? It depends how you describe it

Brits are more positive about diversity than Sweden. 

New research shows that citizens across Europe are pessimistic about the future, distrustful of government and other political institutions, ambivalent at best about multiculturalism, and increasingly sceptical about the role of the European Union.

We wanted to understand the extent to which Europe’s citizens favour a "closed" rather than an "open" outlook and perspective on politics, economics and society. Making globalisation work for ordinary people in the developed world is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. Globalisation’s popularity and political viability is both a pre-condition and a consequence of making it work, but mainstream politicians seem to be failing to persuade us to embrace it, to the detriment of democratic institutions and norms, as well as their own careers.

The decision of the British people to leave the European Union has been perceived as yet another step back from globalisation and a rejection of an "open" outlook that favours international co-operation in favour of a more closed, inward-looking national debate.

There’s certainly a strong element of truth in this explanation. The referendum campaign was deeply divisive, with the Leave campaign playing heavily on concerns over immigration, refugees and EU enlargement. As a consequence, the "liberal" Leavers – those who wanted to leave but favoured a continuing a close economic relationship with the EU along with free movement of labour – appear to have been side-lined within the Conservative party.

Our results are by no means uplifting, but it’s not all doom and gloom. While there’s no doubt that opposition to certain features and consequences of globalisation played an important role in driving the Leave vote, Brits as a whole are just as open, outward-looking and liberal-minded, if not more so, than many of our European neighbours.

First, we asked respondents in all six countries the following:

“Over recent decades the world has become more interconnected. There is greater free trade between countries and easier communication across the globe. Money, people, cultures, jobs and industries all move more easily between countries

“Generally speaking, do you think this has had a positive or negative effect?”

Respondents were asked to consider the effects at four levels: Europe as a whole, their country, their local area, and their own life.

Overall, British voters are overwhelmingly positive about globalisation when described in this way - 58 per cent think it has benefited Europe and 59 per cent think it has benefited Britain. More than half (52 per cent) think it has benefited their local area, and 55 per cent think it has benefited their own life.

One might respond that this question skates over questions of immigration and multiculturalism somewhat, which are the most controversial features of globalisation in the UK. Therefore, we asked whether respondents thought that society becoming more ethnically and religiously diverse had changed it for the better or for the worse.

Overall, 41 per cent said that ethnic and religious diversity had changed British society for the better, while 32 per cent said it had changed for the worse. That’s a net response of +9, compared to -25 in France, -13 in Germany, and -17 in Poland. Brits are even more positive about ethnic and religious diversity than Sweden (+7) – only Spanish respondents were more positive (+27).

There’s a long way to go before ordinary people across the developed world embrace globalisation and international cooperation. Despite the apparent setback of Brexit, the UK is well-placed politically to take full advantage of the opportunities our increasingly inter-connected world will present us with. It would be a mistake to assume, in the wake of the referendum, that the British public want to turn inwards, to close themselves off from the rest of the world. We’re an open, tolerant and outward-looking society, and we should make the most of it.

Charlie Cadywould is a Researcher in the Citizenship Programme at the cross-party think tank Demos. His writing has been published in peer-reviewed journals as well as the national media.