Darling versus Salmond: Who really won the debate?

Public Entrance Scottish Parliament

On the 5th August, on STV, Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond debated the future of Scotland in the United Kingdom.

The debate between Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, and Better Together Leader Alistair Darling, just six weeks away from the referendum, proved to be a fiercely fought contest.

A poll released before the debate, by Ipsos-MORI, found that of those certain to vote 54% support Scotland remaining in the union, 40% support independence, whilst 7% remain undecided.

The 40% planning to vote ‘Yes’ is up four percentage points up from the company’s previous poll in June where 36% planned to vote ‘Yes’. If these figures are correct then support for independence is rising.

For all voters, the figures become 52% in favour of the union, 37% for independence and 11% undecided.

Of those who have made up their minds, and excluding ‘don’t knows’, the figures become 59% in favour of remaining in the UK and 41% planning to vote ‘Yes’.

The debate was an interesting spectacle, which will hopefully set the scene in Scotland, and indeed in the rest of the UK, for future debates. And considering the recent debates between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage it is hard to see how debates will not feature in the run up to 2015’s general election.

However, many commentators made the point that there were no new revelations from the debate and that we learnt nothing we did not already know before. Indeed both Mr. Darling and Mr. Salmond used the same rhetoric and arguments used throughout their campaigns.

As Claire Stewart, an STV political correspondent put it “if you’re playing referendum bingo you’re probably already pretty drunk”.

One key point of the debate was in the cross-questioning where Alistair Darling questioned Alex Salmond on the future of Scotland’s currency.

The SNP argue that an independent Scotland would be able to use the pound in a currency union whereas the leaders of the three main Westminster parties have said that this would not happen.

Alistair Darling pressed Alex Salmond, arguing that for a currency union both countries would need to agree, and continued to ask for a plan B in case the rUK does not support this.

Salmond hit back with the argument that it would be in the UK’s, as well as an independent Scotland’s interests for a currency union. He said: ‘It’s our pound as well as England’s pound’, then said that England is Scotland’s biggest export market, and that Scotland is England’s biggest export market, to back up his point.

Darling continued to make the case that a future UK government, without Scotland, would not allow for a currency union. Salmond then repeated the fact that Alistair Darling once called a currency union ‘logical and desirable’, attempting to dilute Darling’s argument.

Alistair Darling then continued to ask for a ‘plan B’ on currency, something which Salmond avoided by arguing that Westminster would eventually agree to a currency union.

Darling then tried an ‘elimination approach’ in order to get a ‘plan B’. On being asked if he was in favour of Scotland joining the Euro, Salmond said ‘no’, and likewise said no to being in favour of a brand new currency, something which the Scottish Green party support in the event of independence, and instead restated his preference for a currency union.

Finances then became the next big topic. Darling asked about Salmond’s plans for public spending in an independent Scotland, citing a £6bn black hole according to an IFS report. Salmond responded with the argument that an independent Scotland would be in control of its own finances and would bring an end austerity,

Following this, Salmond began his cross-questioning, asking about some members of the ‘Better Together’ campaign calling the campaign ‘project fear’, focusing on the rhetoric and campaigning. Interestingly, he talked about the fact that there are more pandas than Tory MPs in Scotland, and that Andy Burnham once said that an independent Scotland would drive on the right of the side of the road.

He then picked up speed, and talked about Scotland’s future in the EU, asking Darling to withdraw claims that an independent Scotland would not be able to join the European Union. Darling responded saying that ‘the EU does not do things at speed’ and that Scotland would eventually get back into the EU.

Both currency and the future of Scotland in the EU were extensively talked about throughout the debate.

As well as these highlights, the point was made that Labour Yes support is rising, with 28% of Labour voters at Holyrood’s 2011 election now in favour of independence, according to a recent TNS Survey.

Additionally, questions were raised about the future of free universal education in Scotland, given that Scottish students get university fees covered, as well as students in the EU, but not students from different parts of the United Kingdom. Similar points were raised about the future of free prescriptions in Scotland.

Alex Salmond talked about Norway and how an independent Scotland could follow in the Scandinavian country’s footsteps and create an oil fund.

In addition to this, Alistair Darling made the point that for the state pension, which is paid for by taxes today, with an increasing number of pensioners and a working age population falling faster than in the rest of the UK, independence could put pensions at risk.

A Guardian-ICM poll of people watching gave the verdict that Alistair Darling won the debate. Out of the 512 people some 47% thought Alistair Darling won, whilst 37% supported Alex Salmond. Meanwhile 15% did not know who they thought won.

Without the ‘don’t knows’ the figures become 56% - 44%, which is positive news for ‘Better Together’ side.

Alistair Darling came across strong with his main argument being about the Yes campaign's lack of a plan B for the currency of Scotland and his consistent argument on pensions. Meanwhile Alex Salmond took a while to get started, but his best argument was on the EU, making clear that on a recent comment made by the new EU Commission President that he had not being referring to Scotland. He also engaged with the audience by leaving his podium.

It is clear that ‘Better Together’ maintains a lead in the campaign, but it cannot be denied that the support for a ‘Yes’ vote has built up momentum. With just six weeks to go there is still a lot to play for and the result is not yet clear. But if there is one thing we can be sure of it’s that political TV debates are here to stay.