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Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond was forced on the defensive over the question of what currency an independent Scotland would use during a closely watched televised debate between the heads of the rival campaigns on Tuesday night.
The debate, held just six weeks before the referendum on Scottish independence, was dominated by arguments over the economy. It was broadcast live to viewers only in Scotland; those south of the border who wanted to follow it online were frustrated when broadcaster STV’s website crashed.
Alistair Darling, the leader of the anti-independence campaign and a former UK chancellor, repeatedly rejected Mr Salmond’s contention that Scotland could continue to use the pound after independence and pressed him: “What’s Plan B?”
Mr Salmond refused to acknowledge an alternative, insisting that “we’ll keep the pound because it’s our pound as well as England’s”. Mr Darling came back at him, jibing: “You can’t tell us what currency you will have.”
An accomplished debater, Mr Salmond had been expected beforehand to win the debate against the more measured Mr Darling. But during much of the contest, Mr Darling confidently and aggressively took the attack to the Scottish Nationalist leader, who appeared to lack some of his usual sparkle.
A Guardian /ICM poll issued straight after the debate gave victory to Mr Darling by 56 per cent to 44 per cent.
Mr Salmond told the audience they had the “opportunity of a lifetime” to vote for separation from the UK in September.
In an impassioned plea at the start of the debate, the Scottish First Minister told viewers: “No one will do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in this country.
“On the 18th of September we have the opportunity of a lifetime. We should seize that opportunity with both hands.”
Mr Salmond also attacked Mr Darling for his stewardship of the UK economy during the global financial crisis, saying: “You were in charge of financial regulation when the banks went bust”. Mr Darling retorted that small countries like Iceland and Ireland suffered most at the time.
A poll published as the debate began showed a small narrowing of the “No” campaign’s commanding lead over the nationalists.
The Ipsos-Mori survey indicated that 54 per cent of voters wanted to keep the 307-year-old union between London and Edinburgh while 40 per cent backed independence. That represented a four-point narrowing of the difference between the two sides.
All three major political parties at Westminster pledged ahead of the debate to legislate quickly to devolve fresh tax and welfare powers to Scotland if its people reject independence next month.
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