GLASGOW, Scotland: Scotland’s pro-independence leader Alex Salmond easily won a final TV debate Monday night, just over three weeks before a referendum on whether the country should break away from the U.K., but it wasn’t clear if this would help him catch up in the polls.
In a bruising debate before the Sept. 18 referendum, Salmond relentlessly talked over Alistair Darling, the leader of the anti-independence movement, arguing Scotland would be wealthier, freer and better governed if it went it alone.
With the campaign to break up the United Kingdom and sever Scotland’s 307-year union with England trailing in opinion polls by an average of up to 14 percentage points, Salmond’s supporters were looking for a game-changing performance after he lost the first such encounter.
Salmond, 59, did much better this time. In a Guardian/ICM poll, 71 percent of over 500 respondents judged that Salmond had won, against 29 percent who said they thought Darling had.
If Scotland, with its 150 billion pound ($250 billion) economy, 5.2 million people, oil industry, and nuclear submarine base, leaves Britain, with its 1.5 trillion pound economy and 63 million people, the consequences would be profound.
Britain’s three main political parties want it to stay in the union, which is otherwise made up of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, a polling expert, agreed that Salmond had comfortably won the debate. But he questioned whether the nationalist leader’s rhetorical victory would translate into a win at the ballot box.
“A debate doesn’t necessarily win you votes,” said Curtice, adding that the evening had been notable for its lack of proper discussion about wider economic questions.
“My glance at the poll is that while Salmond was the obvious winner, it doesn’t seem to have moved votes at this stage,” he said.
Scotland’s press feted Salmond’s performance. “Salmond Bounces Back,” said the Daily Record, the second-best-selling newspaper, while the top-selling Sun said Darling, the leader of the “Better Together” campaign, had been “smoked” by Salmond.
Over the course of a scrappy hour-and-a-half debate, Salmond repeatedly interrupted Darling and asked him the same questions again and again, a tactic which unsettled the former British finance minister, who at times struggled to find an adequate riposte.
“The eyes of the world are indeed focused on Scotland,” Salmond told the audience in an emotional opening statement, urging Scots to vote for full independence. “This is our time, our moment. Let us do it now.”
In the last debate, Salmond came unstuck on what currency arrangements an independent Scotland would use. He advocates a pound-sharing currency union, but has struggled to explain what he would do if what was left of Britain refused that option.
All three major British parties have ruled out such a union. Salmond predicts that would change if there was a “yes” vote.
This time, Salmond was more confident, if equally vague.
“I want a mandate so we can go in with the will of the Scottish people, for the common-sense option of a currency union,” he said in the debate, shown live on U.K. television.
“We cannot be stopped from using the pound anyway,” he argued, to loud applause from supporters in the audience.
Darling tore into Salmond for failing to spell out a “plan B” if London refused to formally share the pound, calling his idea of using sterling informally “a nonsense option.”
“He can’t answer basic questions on currency. He can’t answer basic questions on tax and spend,” Darling said.