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.