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Scotland independence leader fails to land debate blow

Pro-United Kingdom leader Alistair Darling was declared the surprise winner of a TV debate on Tuesday (Aug 5) on Scotland's future in an ill-tempered encounter with pro-independence chief Alex Salmond.

LONDON: Pro-United Kingdom leader Alistair Darling was declared the surprise winner of a TV debate on Tuesday (Aug 5) on Scotland's future in an ill-tempered encounter with pro-independence chief Alex Salmond.

With just six weeks to go until a referendum on Scottish independence, the debate highlighted the increasingly bitter campaign as the two combatants quarrelled fiercely over a new Scottish currency and the ability of Scotland to go it alone. Scottish First Minister Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), had been expected to dominate the debate with Darling, a fellow Scot and leader of the "Better Together" campaign, and to erode the lead of the 'No' campaign.

But Darling, who was Britain's finance minister during the 2008 economic crisis, held his own as he pressed the SNP leader early on his claim that an independent Scotland would continue to use the pound - something the London government says will not be possible. Salmond insisted retaining the pound would not be a problem, and hit back by asking Darling repeatedly whether he believed Scotland could successfully be an independent country, a question his opponent dodged.

A snap ICM poll for the British-based Guardian newspaper showed 47 per cent of viewers believed that Darling had won while 37 per cent thought Salmond came out on top. Even a commentator from a pro-independence newspaper said Salmond had not managed to land enough heavy blows.

"I don't think it was Alex Salmond's best night," said Iain Macwhirter, a political commentator for the Sunday Herald, which in May became the first paper to officially back independence. "Sometimes Alex Salmond's attempt to be statesmanlike looked liked complacency and I am not sure that will have gone down terribly well with the voters."

The online headline of the paper's daily edition, The Herald - which has yet to state its position - said Darling had "drawn first blood", while the pro-union Daily Record said Darling had "torn into" Salmond. However, The Scotsman declared that there had been no clear winner.

Meanwhile, the SNP pointed to a four-person poll of previously undecided voters in the Daily Record, all of whom said they would now vote 'Yes' to independence.

'OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME'

Both campaigns had said the debate could be a turning point in the campaign for the September 18 referendum, when four million Scots are eligible to vote on their future.

In the end, neither side delivered a knockout blow, a disappointment to the 'Yes' supporters, who had pinned their hopes on Salmond's talent for debate to inject a much-needed boost to their campaign. A poll tracker by the Financial Times newspaper currently puts the 'Yes' vote at 36 per cent, 10 points behind those who would vote 'No' to independence. Some 16 per cent remain undecided.

In his opening speech, Salmond argued that Scottish people should be able to decide their own future, a dream that could not be achieved under the current system of devolution. "My case this evening is this: no one, no one will do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in this country," he said. "On September 18 we have the opportunity of a lifetime. We should seize that opportunity with both hands."

But Darling warned of the risks of going it alone and argued that Scotland would pay too high a price to leave the union, saying: "Remember this - if we decide to leave, there is no going back, there is no second chance."

As tensions rose, members of the audience heckled, booed and cheered the two men.

The leaders of Britain's three main parties on Tuesday signed a pledge to hand over more tax-raising powers to Scotland's devolved government if voters decide to stay in the 307-year-long union with England. Currently, Scotland has policy-making powers in education, health, environment and justice, but the British parliament in London still decides defence and foreign policy.

 

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