ALEX Salmond and Alistair Darling clashed last night in a fiercely combative televised debate in what could be a landmark moment in the battle for Scotland.
The First Minister’s vision of an independent Scotland with the powers to create a more just society was pitted against some forensic questioning by Mr Darling.
Both sides claimed victory after a session that was dominated by the economy and the question of what currency would be used after independence.
The debate began with some encouraging news for Yes Scotland with the release of an STV-commissioned poll, which showed a slight rise in support before the debate started. It ended, however, with Better Together on the front foot after a snap ICM poll of 525 people for the Guardian newspaper found 56 per cent thought Mr Darling had won, with Mr Salmond on 44 per cent.
In front of a worldwide audience, the STV programme was billed by the broadcaster as “the most important political debate in Scotland’s history”.
Although the snap poll judged Mr Darling the victor, neither man managed to deliver a devastating knock-out as they exchanged blows, and it remains to be seen whether Mr Salmond’s performance was convincing enough to sway enough undecideds to Yes. With a ceasefire in the political hostilities put in place for the Commonwealth Games over, the debate saw the opening shots fired in the last lap of what has been a long, drawn out referendum campaign.
The event was played out in front of a 350-strong studio audience, who had been specially selected in conjunction with opinion research firm Ipsos-Mori Scotland to represent Yes, No and undecided voters, at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.
Their exchanges were passionate with the encounter heating up when Mr Darling challenged Mr Salmond over his currency plans.
Given the chance to cross-examine each other, Mr Darling was straight on the offensive on the pound.
Repeatedly, the former Labour chancellor asked Mr Salmond to outline his Plan B, if Scotland did not get the use of the pound.
Mr Salmond argued that the pound belonged to Scotland and England. But in a stormy session, Mr Darling said the pound belonged to United Kingdom and said independence would lead to Scotland “scrabbling around with someone else’s currency”, which would be “foolishness of the first order”.
Mr Darling said every eight-year-old knew that the Scottish flag was the Saltire and that the capital was Edinburgh, adding: “You can’t even tell us what currency we would have.”
Mr Darling also made the first of several references to the Scottish Government’s legal action to hide whether or not legal advice had been taken on EU membership. “This reminds me of the legal advice, you’re not doing yourself any favours,” Mr Darling goaded, as he repeated his claim that currency union could only happen with political union.
Mr Salmond quoted work by the Scottish Government’s fiscal commission, which contains two Nobel Laureates – Joseph Stiglitz and Professor James Mirrlees.
He said the commission had set out a range of options and the best one was to share the pound. The First Minister argued that it was in the interests of both Scotland and England. Suggestions to the contrary were “campaign tactics – designed to scare”, Mr Salmond said.
Mr Darling argued that a currency union required economic union over tax and spend, which required political union.
The Better Together leader claimed such an arrangement enabled the UK to transfer money from richer to poorer areas – which led to ironic groans from Yes supporters.
The banking crisis came to the forefront when the former chancellor said it was the strength of the UK that allowed him to bail out the banks when there was only three hours cash left.
Given his chance to cross-examine Mr Darling, Mr Salmond taunted the Better Together leader, saying the No side had themselves labelled their campaign “Project Fear”.
Mr Salmond cited a host of examples where No supporting politicians had made outlandish claims about independence, including the suggestion that Scotland would drive on the right and would be vulnerable to alien attack.
The First Minister then asked Mr Darling if he agreed with Prime Minister David Cameron that Scotland could be successful independent country.
Mr Darling talked of the risks associated with going independent. He said 15 per cent of Scotland’s tax revenue came from declining North Sea oil revenues.
Mr Salmond repeated the question time and again – as he tried to get Mr Darling to admit that an independent Scotland would be successful.
At one stage, Mr Salmond remarked that he felt that he felt like Jeremy Paxman interviewing Michael Howard.
Mr Darling’s response was to say that the First Minister was more reminiscent of Howard than Paxman.
The pair also clashed and disagreed on public spending. Mr Salmond claimed that Scots had paid more in tax than the UK average over the past 30 years. He said in the last five years, £8 billion more had been paid to the Treasury, a sum that could have secured the living standard for many in Scotland.
Earlier, Mr Darling had claimed that Scotland had benefited from higher public spending per head.
The Labour MP added he was “fiercely proud” to be Scottish, but paying into a UK Exchequer helped tackle poverty in Liverpool and Manchester.
Mr Salmond was the first to make an opening statement, having won a coin-toss.
Mr Salmond’s opening contrasted the existence of food banks with those of nuclear weapons on the Clyde 10 miles away from the venue.
He said: “Within 10 miles of where I’m standing in Glasgow there are 35 food banks, in this city and its surroundings serving thousands of families with children. How is it in this prosperous country we have thousands of families with children dependent on food banks?
“Within 25 miles of where I’m standing there is Europe’s largest concentration of weapons of mass destruction and the UK government intends to spend £100 billion – including £8bn of Scotland’s money – in maintaining these weapons of mass destruction.”
Mr Salmond said that 49 of 71 nations competing in the “enormously successful” Glasgow Commonwealth Games were the same size as Scotland or smaller, with this also being the case for 12 of the 28 members of the European Union.
“Few if any of these countries possess the natural and human resources that Scotland is blessed with,” the SNP leader said.
“So it should be a shared position tonight that Scotland could be a successful independent country.”
He told the audience that for more than half his life Scotland had been “governed by parties we didn’t elect at Westminster” which he wanted to change, adding: “These governments have given us everything from the poll tax to the bedroom tax and now the same people, in their self-declared Project Fear, are telling this country that we can’t run our own affairs.
“My case this evening is this: no-one, no-one will do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in this country. On September 18 we have the opportunity of a lifetime. We should seize that opportunity with both hands.”
Mr Darling’s opening remarks said independence should not be a question of “blind faith”, adding that he wanted Mr Darling to tackle his unanswered questions.
“I want Scotland to prosper – we all do but it is not our patriotism that is at stake tonight rather it’s something bigger than that and that’s the future of our country the future for our children and our grandchildren, and it isn’t just for politicians it’s for all of us,” Mr Darling said.
“And you know there are times that for the love of our family and the love of our country it’s sometimes best to say No – not because we can’t – but simply because it is not the best thing to do. Now, in six weeks time we will make the biggest decision that we have ever made here in Scotland. But remember this – if we decide to leave there is no going back - there is no second chance.
“Now for me the choice is very, very clear – I want to use the strength of the UK to make Scotland stronger – we can have the best of both worlds with a strong Scottish Parliament with full powers over health over education and with more powers guaranteed because a vote to say no thanks to the risks of independence is not a vote for no change.”
The Ipsos Mori poll before the debate, which preceded the Guardian one, showed a slight rise in support for independence while support for remaining in the UK remained constant.
Among those who described themselves as being “certain to vote” in the referendum, 40 per cent said they supported independence, an increase of four percentage points from June.
Meanwhile, the proportion of people who favour Scotland staying part of the UK remained static at 54 per cent.
Just 6 per cent of those polled said they had not yet decided how they would vote, down from 10 per cent in June.
A total of 1,006 people in Scotland were questioned between 28 July and 3 August for the research.
When the undecided voters were factored out, the poll put support for the UK at 58 per cent, a drop of two percentage points from June, while support for independence was up by two points to 42 per cent.
STV was unable to release audience figures last night, but the show had the potential to reach a vast audience online.
Previous STV debates featuring other Yes and No politicians have had a peak viewing figure of 200,000 – but viewing figures for last night’s event were expected to be far in excess of that.