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Winning televised debates is not the same thing as changing minds, as the pro-unionist Better Together campaign knows all too well.
Its leader, Alistair Darling, was widely thought to have prevailed a fortnight ago in the first public joust on Scottish independence with the nationalist first minister, Alex Salmond. Yet victory did nothing for the No side’s poll ratings. If anything, there was a bounce towards the Yes campaign, albeit not of sufficient size to close what remains a substantial deficit ahead of next month’s referendum.
Nonetheless, pro-separatists will take heart from Monday’s second encounter between the two men. It was a very different Mr Salmond who emerged this time. The nationalist leader dominated proceedings, frequently emerging from behind his podium to address the audience directly and talking over a visibly flustered and largely static Mr Darling.
Mr Salmond gave a far more fluent response to the question that dogged him in the last debate: namely, which currency an independent Scotland would use if the rest of the UK refused to enter into monetary union with it. He offered “three plan Bs for the price of one”, including using the pound without formal union, and adopting a new independent currency. He was also much more combative when it came to his campaign’s main argument: the necessity of independence to preserve Scotland’s public services, especially the National Health Service.
As polling day nears, Mr Salmond’s tactics are all too clear. The Yes side has no further need to appeal to romantic nationalists, whose votes are already in the bag. It is concentrating all of its fire on the wavering don’t knows.
Strategists have pinpointed these as disillusioned Labour voters who worry about the consequences of independence for public services and the economy. To these individuals Mr Salmond is offering a prescription for independence that seeks to have it both ways. Scotland can leave the UK and banish the spectre of Conservative government while retaining the bits of the status quo – whether the currency, monarchy or levels of public service provision – that it likes.
Mr Darling may not have won over his audience by pointing out the inconsistencies in this position. The Better Together leader was both nervous and prone to lapse into obscurity, such as when he compared Mr Salmond’s plan B of “sterlingisation” to the currency arrangements of Panama.
But the holes in the nationalist argument are there nonetheless. For all his plans A, B and C, Mr Salmond remains fixated on the idea of a currency union that the main UK political parties have firmly rejected. But even were such a deal negotiable it would hardly be consistent with the nationalist leader’s promise of fiscal independence.
The inconvenient truth remains that any currency union would put UK taxpayers on the line for any emergency support that might be needed for Scotland’s outsize banking sector. No UK government could concede this unless Scotland accepted very heavy constraints over its public finances. These would go beyond what advocates of independence could endure.
Mr Salmond’s victory on Monday is a reminder that Scotland’s first minister is not a figure to be underestimated. If the result were to depend on style and chutzpah alone, he might already be preparing his victory speech.
Fortunately, as this long debate winds to its close, the stronger arguments remain on the No campaign’s side. But there can be no complacency.
In the coming weeks, Mr Darling and the No campaign must press home to the Scottish electorate that a move to independence would be irreversible and fraught with risk. For all Mr Salmond’s blandishments, he is offering little more than a leap in the dark.
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