Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, struggled to lay out his case for independence in a fierce first debate on Tuesday night with the leader of the pro-union campaign.

Nationalists had hoped to build momentum for a Yes vote in next month’s referendum, but Alistair Darling, leader of the pro-union Better Together campaign and a former UK chancellor, piled pressure on Mr Salmond over his refusal to identify a “Plan B” for use if the rest of the UK rejected his plans to continue sharing the pound after independence.

Mr Salmond, an accomplished television performer, had been expected to dominate the long-awaited debate against the drier Mr Darling. But the veteran Labour MP was in confident and animated form and an instant ICM poll for the Guardian newspaper found 56 per cent of respondents thought he had won the debate compared with 44 per cent who said Mr Salmond had prevailed.

Mr Salmond insisted that independence would allow Scotland to build a more just society and bring an end to Westminster austerity, declaring that “Voting Yes is a vote for ambition over fear.”

He also brought up Scottish National party promises of action to stem population decline and ensure more generous welfare and welcoming immigration policies.

But most of the debate centred on economic uncertainties and sometimes personal mutual criticism between the first minister and former chancellor – not the positive message that Yes strategists had said was most likely to deliver victory on September 18.

A poll published as the debate began showed a four percentage point narrowing of the No campaign’s lead – but suggested 54 per cent of Scottish voters would still back staying in the 307-year-old political union between London and Edinburgh compared with 40 per cent supporting independence.

Despite his reputation as one of the UK’s dullest major politicians, Mr Darling came up with some of the debate’s sharpest lines.

When Mr Salmond argued that without independence Scotland would continue to often find itself ruled by governments it had not voted for, Mr Darling pointed at the first minister and replied: “I didn’t vote for him, but I’m stuck with him.”

Mr Salmond pushed Mr Darling repeatedly to say whether he agreed with comments from David Cameron, UK prime minister, that Scotland could be a “successful, independent country”.

When Mr Darling refused to directly answer, Mr Salmond said he felt like Jeremy Paxman in the BBC presenter’s famous encounter with UK minister Michael Howard, when the politician dodged a single question 12 times.

“You are more like Michael Howard than you are like Jeremy Paxman,” Mr Darling shot back.

Mr Salmond also landed some rhetorical punches, dismissing Mr Darling’s doubts about Scotland’s ability to support a large banking sector by noting that the former chancellor had been “in charge of financial regulation when the banks went bust”.

He pressed Mr Darling over Better Together’s focus on the difficulties and risks an independent Scotland would face and hit out at UK parties’ rejection of currency union. “It’s a campaign tactic, not a serious proposition …it’s designed to scare the people of Scotland and it won’t work.”

The first minister appeared to stray close to questioning No supporters’ patriotism, saying that he personally did not doubt that Mr Darling was a proud Scot, but wondering aloud why the former chancellor felt the need to stress this so often.

It was unclear whether the rapid-fire and often raucous debate would help sell the Yes case to undecided voters.

In a tweet, Nicola McEwen of Edinburgh university’s Academy of Government said the encounter was unlikely to help energise the debate.

“2nd half better than the first, but suspect debate more off putting than engaging for most,” Ms McEwen wrote.

Vox Scots: An FT panel of voters

Andrew Veitch (Pro-union): Alex Salmond started his questions by talking about an alien attack from space which was a brave choice of topic. Back on earth Alistair Darling could not get an answer on the currency question. Salmond made such a passionate defence of the pound and the benefits of a currency union with the rest of the UK that I thought for a moment he had changed sides. Darling showed much more passion than I’d expected and on debating they were pretty equal. However, Salmond is stuck with his contradictory policies which makes winning any debate hard.

James Hartley (Undecided): Darling, flustered, nervous and not convincing. Salmond, more positive, statesman-like, put the case for Yes over reasonably well. However, some of the audience questions were repeating stale old stuff from about six months ago. I have managed to find answers, why can’t they? Unless off course they don’t want to. It would appear that the audience were especially selected to have a No majority. So I guess in the circumstances Salmond won easily.

Jill Stephenson (Pro-union): Breezy, confident Salmond was absent. His adversary was sober, conscientious Darling: Pete Wishart, SNP MP, had asked No voters on Twitter if they would like to withdraw Darling from the contest before it was too late. Not a bit of it – and faith was rewarded as Darling laid into Salmond on the currency issue in particular, and poked fun at his inability to see that suggestions about Scots having to drive on the right after separation were an April Fool’s joke. Andy Burnham confessed to being its author. There was no knock-out blow but an exit poll showed Darling’s combative performance had had more purchase than Salmond’s surprisingly lacklustre one.

Ivan McKee (Pro-independence): Darling failed to make a positive case for the Union. He couldn’t even bring himself to admit, as David Cameron has done, that Scotland could be a successful country if independent. He clearly has little faith in the people of Scotland to manage their own affairs. The No campaign strategy is still to make people think Scotland cannot manage without Westminster, although all the evidence shows Scotland’s finances are in better shape than the UK as a whole.

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