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Scots referendum: both sides claim debate victory

Alistair Darling during a visit to Fife Fabrications in Glenrothes, the day after the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and the leader of the pro-UK Better Together campaign took part in their first televised debate of the campaign. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday August 6, 2014. With just six weeks to go until voters north of the border decide if Scotland remains in the UK in the September 18 referendum, the debate between the rival politicians saw heated clashes over issues such as what the currency of an independent Scotland would be. See PA story REFERENDUM Debate. Photo credit should read: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Alistair Darling during a visit to Fife Fabrications in Glenrothes, the day after the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and the leader of the pro-UK Better Together campaign took part in their first televised debate of the campaign. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday August 6, 2014. With just six weeks to go until voters north of the border decide if Scotland remains in the UK in the September 18 referendum, the debate between the rival politicians saw heated clashes over issues such as what the currency of an independent Scotland would be. See PA story REFERENDUM Debate. Photo credit should read: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Both sides in the independence debate claimed victory after the first head-to-head showdown between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling.

The Scottish First Minister and the leader of the pro-UK Better Together campaign on Tuesday night took part in their first televised debate of the campaign.

With just six weeks to go until voters north of the border decide if Scotland remains in the UK in the September 18 referendum, the debate between the rival politicians saw heated clashes over issues such as what the currency of an independent Scotland would be.

A snap poll by ICM for The Guardian newspaper indicated former chancellor Mr Darling may have scored a narrow victory over the SNP leader, winning the debate by 56 per cent to 44 per cent.

This morning, Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander told BBC Radio Scotland: “When the history of this campaign is written, last night will be seen as a hugely significant, perhaps decisive, moment in this referendum campaign.”

But Blair Jenkins, the chief executive of the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign, said the ICM survey after the debate showed Mr Salmond had been more successful in wooing undecided voters.

Mr Jenkins told Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “I think what people saw laid out very starkly last night was the story of this referendum, which is the story of two very different campaigns, one very positive and one very negative.

“The numbers in the ICM poll indicate very clearly that the movement over the debate was towards Yes, so the swing was towards Yes among ‘don’t knows’ in the ICM poll. By a majority of two to one, those who made up their mind in the course of the debate moved to Yes.

“We’re finding in our own polling, roughly speaking as people make up their mind, on a two to one basis they are coming to Yes, so it was a good debate for us.

“Amongst the ‘don’t knows’ in the ICM poll last night, the First Minister was seen as winning the debate by 74 per cent to 26 per cent. That’s where this is going to be won.”

But Mr Alexander, who has a key role in Labour’s election campaign strategies, insisted the SNP leader had failed to answer key questions.

In the debate Mr Darling had pressed the First Minister to state what currency an independent Scotland would use if a formal deal to keep the pound could not be agreed with the rest of the UK.

Mr Alexander told the same programme today: “Alistair Darling won asking the question millions of us as Scots are wanting answers to, most notably what would be our currency.

“We know the capital would be Edinburgh, we know the flag would be the Saltire, we still don’t know what the currency would be with six weeks to go.”

He added: “I think why Alistair was so powerful last night is he was asking the questions that people are asking around the breakfast table, in their workplaces, at school gates - what will the currency be, what will be the effect on pensions, how are we going to make sure our young people have jobs.

“What I thought was so remarkable was for someone who is as skilled a debater as Alex Salmond, the answers were not forthcoming, not to the satisfaction of the audience, not to the satisfaction of Scotland.”

The Labour MP continued: “This wasn’t just a debate between two politicians, it was actually an opportunity, one of the last opportunities, for the First Minister to provide convincing and compelling answers.

“I don’t think with six weeks to go the First Minister has an answer, the nationalists are short of answers and they are also short of time.

“The truth is the momentum is with those of us who believe the better future, the smarter future for Scotland is to remain part of the United Kingdom. I think last night will prove to have been a decisive moment in the defeat of the Yes campaign.”

Mr Jenkins said: “The debates are important, but this referendum is going to be won in the millions of conversations around Scotland right now and over the next six weeks. We’re going to win this on every street and every doorstep.

“We are in touching distance of winning. I am in no doubt over the next six weeks we will win.”

Polling expert Professor John Curtice, from Strathclyde University, said both men had failed to convince undecided voters to back their side.

“I don’t think there was a clear winner,” he told Good Morning Scotland.

“The evidence of the ICM poll is that for the most part Yes supporters thought Alex Salmond had won, No supporters for the most part thought Alistair Darling won.

“The undecided were fairly evenly divided, with maybe a slight edge for Mr Salmond. That suggests, frankly, neither side secured decisive advantage.”

The academic continued: “My own personal reading of the event is because Mr Salmond entered the debate as the favourite to emerge as the winner, but in the event rather than boring for Britain as somebody suggested Mr Darling might do, in fact he proved to be quite animated. Mr Darling’s performance surprised in the sense that he proved to be strongly animated - sometimes perhaps that animation was hiding nervousness.

“Mr Darling probably got twice as many words out than Mr Salmond and in that respect seemed to have rather more to say for himself.

“But I’m not surprised at the polling evidence. It wasn’t clear that either of them used the debate to reach out effectively to the undecided and the uncommitted voters.

“They both led on the issues that mattered to their existing supporters, not necessarily the subjects that are central to undecided voters.”

Prof Curtice said there had been little discussion over whether Scotland would be better off if it left the UK - adding this issue could be key to winning undecided voters.

“In that respect both sides missed a trick,” he said.

“Mr Salmond might be able to win on style, and yes, he may well have done so in the eyes of many voters last night, but he needed to use his ability to win on style to persuade people on substance.

“It looks as though, on the evidence we have so far, he did not really succeed in making that connection.”

When asked which politician had made the best arguments in the debate, 51 per cent of those polled opted for Mr Darling compared with the 40 per cent who said the SNP leader had made the better case, according to ICM.

The two-hour programme saw Mr Salmond and Mr Darling clash over key issues facing voters north of the border in the referendum.

Mr Darling, who was chancellor in Gordon Brown’s Labour government, repeatedly pressed Mr Salmond to set out what his “plan B” would be if an independent Scotland failed to secure a currency union to allow it to retain the pound in the wake of a Yes vote.

The First Minister insisted however that Scotland would keep the pound after a Yes vote “because it belongs to Scotland as much as it belongs to England”.

The SNP leader challenged Mr Darling several times to say whether he agreed with comments from Prime Minister David Cameron that Scotland would be a successful independent country.

The Better Together leader also accused Mr Salmond of being “ridiculous” after a series of questions from the First Minister on comments said to have been made by the No campaign. These included that Scots would have to drive on the right hand side of the road and would be more susceptible to attacks from outer space after independence.

The SNP leader told voters that next month’s referendum was “the opportunity of a lifetime”, adding: “We should seize that opportunity with both hands.”

Mr Darling argued he wanted to “use the strength of the UK to make Scotland stronger”.

With all three of the main parties at Westminster having drawn up proposals to transfer more power to Edinburgh in the event of a No vote, the former chancellor said: “We can have the best of both worlds with a strong Scottish Parliament, with full powers over health, over education and with more powers guaranteed.”

 

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