Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling at the end their live television debate in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Scottish debate: Salmond needed a win, but Darling triumphed

The Better Together head’s mastery of the detail consistently gave him the edge. 

Alex Salmond came to tonight's debate with Alistair Darling needing a clear victory. With just six weeks to go until the independence referendum, the Yes campaign continues to trail by a double-digit margin. The Scottish First Minister needed an unambiguous win to convert the "don't knows" to his camp. But he didn't get it. Instead, it was Darling who topped the post-debate Guardian/ICM poll by 56 per cent to 44 per cent (almost identical to the No campaign's current lead). 

In nearly two hours of debate, Salmond failed to land any knockout blows on the Better Together chair, whose mastery of the detail consistently gave him the edge. Worse, he came unstuck on the question that most animated the studio audience: what currency would Scotland use if denied a monetary union by the rest of UK?

Salmond's reply - that it would use the pound without permission (as Panama and Ecuador use the dollar) - was greeted with cries of derision"What is your plan B? We need more than 'it'll be alright on the night,'" said one incredulous audience member. In his closing statement, Salmond appealed for the voters to choose "ambition over fear", but tonight he failed to address their biggest fear of all: that an independent Scotland, with no lender of last resort (the role currently filled by the Bank of England), would be left helpless in the event of another financial crisis. 

Compared to the defining issue of the currency, Salmond's concerns often appeared petty and esoteric. His opening gambit in the second round - why does the No campaign refer to itself as "Project Fear" (it doesn't, replied Darling) - roused the nationalist faithful, but it did nothing to persuade the unconverted. 

Throughout the debate, Salmond sought to tie Darling to the toxic Tories, mentioning David Cameron and George Osborne's names at every opportunity. But faced with this baiting, Darling largely kept his cool. Asked how he felt about Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond supporting EU withdrawal, he amusingly quipped that he and Salmond could find themselves on the same side in that referendum. The more pertinent question was when and how an independent Scotland would achieve EU membership. "The one thing you can't accuse the EU of is moving at speed," the former chancellor drily observed.

After losing most of the exchanges, Salmond roused himself at the end, romantically declaring that "no one, no one will do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in this country". But it is Darling's attack on the Yes campaign's "guesswork, blind faith and crossed fingers" that is more likely to stay with viewers. 

In a race that has proved more static than many expected, tonight's debate was one of the few possible game changers for Salmond. It is some measure of his failure, then, that the case for independence has emerged not stronger, but weaker. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.