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Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist first minister, can be frustratingly pat. Alistair Darling, who leads the unionist campaign against him, is rarely confused for a rock n’ roll star. So the televised showdown between the two men on Tuesday, six weeks before their compatriots vote on independence, was never going to be remembered alongside the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Yet something of the essence of each campaign – not just their arguments, but their spirit – came through during 100 minutes that rarely dragged. Mr Darling was forensic in exposing the technical knottiness of ending the union. This came at the cost of a hectoring tone. Mr Salmond radiated wonder at the quasi-Scandinavian miracle that an independent Scotland would become, and portrayed his opponent as a visionless bore. But his shallow streak was hard to ignore. The debate turned out to be exactly what it was on paper: a struggle between a trained advocate and a first-class politician, with all the stylistic differences that implies.
Given the unionist campaign’s consistent double-digit lead in the polls, Mr Salmond needed to win the debate resoundingly. He certainly failed in that mission. Pressed to say what currency an independent Scotland would use if hanging on to sterling turned out to be impractical, he insisted that such a thing would never happen. Wavering voters might expect him to have a contingency plan regardless. Scots are not famous for taking quixotic punts on such large matters. Mr Salmond was not flustered as such – the debate was a glimpse of how far smoothness and imperturbability can take you in politics – but he never recovered his vim either.
Mr Darling’s achievement on the night, and during the campaign he looks likely to win, comes from ignoring political pundits in favour of hard data. For years the commentariat has advised the unionists to make an emotional case, matching nationalists for romantic imagery and stirring invocations of history. But the polling numbers always told them that hard-headed arguments, about the implications of secession for the currency and for Scotland’s EU membership in particular, were the ones that really moved swing voters. These were the arguments that won the debate for Mr Darling.
Mr Salmond’s consolation is rather a large one, though. Nobody watching the debate in England, or least its southern half, could fail to see how distinct a political culture Scotland has become. Mr Salmond was most loudly cheered when he preached the kind of economic statism that England has had no time for since the 1970s. On basic questions of political economy, Scotland’s centre ground is some way to the left of England’s. Mr Salmond talked of Conservative rule as though that were self-evidently a monstrous thing, knowing that much of his country would agree. The Conservatives are the most popular party in England, which accounts for 84 per cent of the UK’s population.
Mr Darling won the debate. But it exposed underlying trends that augur badly for the union beyond September.