THE final referendum TV debate between First Minister Alex Salmond and Better Together leader Alistair Darling sparked heated exchanges last night, as the countdown to September 18 intensified.
A snap ICM/Guardian poll suggested 71 per cent of viewers thought Mr Salmond won, with 29 per cent putting Mr Darling ahead.
Answering questions on the economy, the SNP leader said he had “three Plan Bs” for Scotland’s currency after a Yes vote as he again came under pressure over the issue – but he again refused to set out his preferred option.
On the NHS, Mr Darling branded the Yes campaign “beneath contempt” over “scare stories” about the health service, but he faced awkward questions over how Scotland would get more powers after a No vote.
The BBC debate had been described beforehand as the most important 90 minutes of Mr Salmond’s political life, and he did produce a more punchy display compared with his lacklustre performance in the last debate, on STV, which saw the former chancellor pull off a surprise victory.
Last night’s debate, from Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, was watched by an audience of millions across the UK and worldwide, and it came the day before postal votes start dropping through letter boxes.
Mr Salmond said it had been the “most extraordinary energising campaign in Scotland’s history” and predicted a turnout of 80 per cent. “But there’s an obligation to bring Scotland together whatever the result – it’s going to be a close vote,” he said.
He went on to offer Mr Darling a place in the Scottish negotiating team after a Yes vote, to which Mr Darling replied: “It’s important that whatever the result, both sides accept it.”
Mr Salmond insisted he had three Plan Bs for Scotland’s currency after independence if the UK vetoes a formal currency union.
“We could have a Scottish currency. We could have a flexible currency like Sweden or Norway has. We could have a fixed rate Scottish pound attached to the pound sterling. That’s what Denmark does with the euro and Hong Kong does with the dollar.
“No-one can stop us using the pound sterling, which is an internationally tradeable currency. Nobody can stop us using it.”
But he refused to set out his favoured option of the three.
The former chancellor described the pound as the “bedrock” of the Scottish economy but warned it belonged to the Bank of England. He added: “By being part of the United Kingdom, we have that level of security. When you look at the wider economy, Scotland has an awful lot going for us; our business and firms do well because of the United Kingdom.”
The currency issue has dominated the debate since Mr Salmond struggled to provide answers on his Plan B during the last debate. The SNP says Scotland will share the pound in a currency union with the rest of the UK after a Yes vote, which would see Scotland keep the Bank of England as “lender of last resort” to bail out the country’s financial giants like RBS in the event of another crash. The UK Government and main Labour opposition have ruled this as being too risky for UK taxpayers, but Mr Salmond dismisses this as “bluster”.
Mr Salmond also re-iterated his warning that the NHS would be under threat after a Yes vote but was accused by Mr Darling of endorsing a “fabrication”.
Mr Darling said the NHS had only been mentioned once by Mr Salmond once in the last debate. “Since then we’ve been subjected to a scare campaign principally aimed at what’s going on in England,” he said.
“Alex Salmond has endorsed a claim that operations were being stopped in Gateshead in the north-east of England because of privatisation
“It turns out that the allegation was simply untrue – a complete fabrication.”
The Yes camp claims only independence can secure the NHS’s future in the face of cuts south of the Border. This has been branded an “outright lie” by pro-union parties who point out the health service is already fully under the control of the Scottish Parliament. Nationalists argue that greater privatisation of the service down south will eventually lead to a fall in the amount of public money used to fund it - and this will have a knock-on reduction in Scotland’s overall budget.
The First Minister told the audience: “Cutbacks in England and a move towards privatisation and charging will impose financial pressure on the National Health Service.
“If we want to see what could happen in Scotland, we only need to look at Wales today where a Labour administration has been forced to cut back on NHS spending in real terms.
“We’re protecting it in Scotland, but that’s extremely difficult.
“If we believe in England, there’s a privatisation agenda and a charging agenda in the NHS it means less public money spent in England and that has a knock-on to Scotland.”
Mr Darling also attacked the SNP leader over North Sea oil and gas after tycoon Sir Ian Wood had the Yes camp on the back foot last week when he claimed the Scottish Government had over-estimated the amount oil and gas left in the North Sea by up to 60 per cent.
But Mr Salmond insisted even the smaller of Sir Ian’s estimates would be worth £1 trillion. He went on: “The No campaign are the only people in the world who argue that the possession of substantial amounts of oil and gas is somehow a curse.”
Darling key quotes
“You may hear some good lines from him tonight, but a good line is not always a good answer”
“The basic difference between Alex Salmond and me is this: my first priority is to build a fairer and better society, his first priority is to create a separate state no matter what the risks and what the cost”
“There is a huge amount of risk because North Sea oil revenues are volatile”
“The problem is that we’ve never extracted as much North Sea oil as people had expected. It’s not a matter for Alex Salmond what the currency is. I want to know what Plan B is”
“It’s a rotten option. What are we going to have as our currency?”
“In the last debate, Alex Salmond mentioned the NHS once. Since then we have been subjected to a scare campaign, principally of what’s happened in England”
“All you’ve got to offer in the white paper is that corporation tax is 3p cheaper than George Osborne – isn’t that great for Amazon and Starbucks?”
Salmond key quotes
“I’m looking for a mandate so we can share the currency in a sensible union. I’m seeking a mandate to get the pound sterling so we can get mortgages and wages”
“The mandate is crucial. If you send me into negotiations as First Minister, that will be the outcome”
“The Tory party and the Labour party are the only people who are arguing that the substantial ownership of oil is a curse. The reality is that every other country would give its eye teeth to have North Sea oil”
“They cannot stop us using the pound – that’s the most important revelation [of tonight]”
“To have a health service we can rely on, you’ve got to have financial control as well as political control”
“You are in bed with the Tory party. Why are you standing here defending Conservative policies on a joint Conservative-Labour platform?”
“Will you be prepared to support the sovereign will of the Scottish people if there is a Yes vote?”
“Any other expenditure would generate more jobs than on weapons of mass destruction that will never be used”
Dr Peter Collett: What the body language was saying
IN a momentous debate of this nature it’s essential that the protagonists come across as confident and persuasive, and that these qualities are evident, not only in what they say but how they appear to the voters.
Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling are seasoned politicians – people who’re used to having their own way – and this showed in their behaviour. First Salmond and then Darling resorted to the two-handed “knuckle display”.
At first glance it looks like the person is shielding himself, but because the gesture presents the knuckles it shows that it’s actually an aggressive action – a way of surreptitiously threatening the other person.
By repeatedly resorting to the knuckle display both were unconsciously reminding each other – as well as the audience and the viewers at home – that they were not prepared to be pushed around.
On balance, Darling came across as the more dominant. He spent a lot of time stabbing his index finger in the direction of Salmond – a gesture which barely succeeds in disguising its aggression since the finger is being used as a substitute weapon.
When Darling was speaking, Salmond made a point of watching him closely, but when Salmond was holding sway Darling pointedly avoided looking in his direction, a pattern of gaze reminiscent of chimpanzee troops in the wild, where low status individuals spend more time monitoring their superiors than the other way round.
Salmond had several debating tricks up his sleeve. When he answered a question from the public, he frequently abandoned the security of the lectern and took a few steps towards the audience. This technique was used to great effect during presidential debates by Bill Clinton. It creates the impression that the politician isn’t trying to hide anything and that he or she wants to engage with the audience. It works provided that it doesn’t appear too studied or premeditated.
However the voters react, you can be sure that it owes as much to the debaters’ actions as to what they actually said.
• Dr Peter Collett is a psychologist, an expert in body language, management style and TV audiences