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September 21, 2014
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Anger marks Scottish independence debate

Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond.
Two campaign leaders clash live on television ahead of secession vote next month

GLASGOW — The battle for Scotland’s future shifted to the country’s TV screens for the first time yesterday, with an angry debate between the “yes” and “no” campaigns’ respective leaders ahead of next month’s historic referendum.

Scots will decide on September 18 whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to break their 307-year union with England and strike out alone, with opinion polls indicating a slight majority of voters will reject independence.

Yesterday’s US-style televised debate saw Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist First Minister and Alastair Darling, formerly the Labour Party’s chancellor of the Exchequer, go head-to-head, with both seeking to persuade voters to back their campaigns.

Salmond, in particular, had a lot riding on the debate, and he angrily attacked Darling’s negative “fear campaign,” which he said he seeking to scare voters into remaining with the status quo.

The leader of the pro-independence campaign will be hoping his performance was enough to turn the tide. Salmond, generally thought to be a good rhetorical performer, began the debate by declaring that an independent Scotland could build a fairer and richer society. The British government spent far too much on nuclear weapons, he said, but had failed the people of Scotland while imposing taxes. Salmond has promised to rid Scotland of nuclear arms if Scotland becomes independent.

“My case this evening is simple: no one, absolutely no one, would do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in Scotland,” Salmond, 59, told an audience in front of a screen bearing Scotland’s white-and-blue flag.

“On the 18th of September we have the opportunity of a lifetime — we should seize it with both hands,” said Salmond.

Surveys consistently show opponents of independence holding on to a slight lead over those who want to end the union with England, though as many as a quarter of Scotland’s four million voters have reportedly yet to decide.

A poll from Ipsos Mori released as the TV debate commenced showed support for independence had risen to 40 percent, up four percentage points since a similar poll in June and the highest support that the pollster has yet recorded for the “Yes” campaign.

However, other polls have suggested that the “Yes” campaign stalled at the end of March and yesterday’s poll found that 54 percent were set to reject independence, unchanged since June, while seven percent of the electorate were still unsure how they would vote — a three-point fall.

‘No going back’

“If we decide to leave, there is no going back, there is no second chance. For me the choice is very very clear: I want to use the strength of the United Kingdom to make Scotland stronger,” said Darling, the head of the “Better Together” anti-independence movement.

“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 because a vote to say no thanks to the risks of independence is not a vote for no change.”

In feisty exchanges between Darling and Salmond, the Scottish First Minister found himself under intense pressure regarding his party’s plans over Scotland’s future currency.

In his critique of the nationalist case, Darling, at times raising his voice in an uncharacteristic manner, focused on economic arguments, particularly what plans Salmond had for its post-independence currency and its future revenues.

After pushing Salmond on how an independent Scotland could keep the pound, given that the British government had excluded a currency union, Darling repeatedly asked: “What’s your plan B?

“If you don’t get a currency union, this is a most important question,” he added.

“I am in favour of keeping the pound sterling,” Salmond, dressed in a grey suit, finally responded, after he was booed by the audience, seemingly for attempting to dodge the question.

Darling was spoken over by at least one member of the audience and the moderator of the debate asked the audience to respect the debate. Both men interrupted each other at times.

Sometimes reading from notes and quoting news reports, Salmond branded the “No” campaign as “Project Fear” and complained about its tactics.

He also accused Darling, a left-wing politician, of being allied with ministers belonging to right-leaning Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, which he said wanted to lead Britain out of the European Union.

Salmond’s supporters argue that Scotland, which has its own parliament and judicial system but lacks substantial tax-raising powers, would be freer, better governed and richer on its own.

The “No” campaign argues Scotland would be unable to keep the British pound, that tens of thousands of jobs in the defence and financial sectors would be at risk, and that an independent Scotland might find it hard to rejoin the EU.

Earlier yesterday, in a move widely seen as an attempt to undermine Salmond, Britain’s three main political parties all said they would seek further powers for Scotland in the event of a “No” vote when it came to tax raising and social security.

Hot topic online

The debate was a hot topic online — but not for the right reasons. People from outside Scotland, who wanted to watch the debate online flooded the site of STV, an affiliate of British broadcaster ITV which broadcast the event, but the website crashed due to high demand.

The site’s failure prompted a whole host of criticism online, much of it tinged with comedy it was a sign of things to come, should Scotland gained independence.

Controversially, the debate was only aired on Scottish TV — as only Scots living in Scotland can vote in the referendum, so viewers south of the border with England were forced online to watch it. In the rest of Britain, ITV broadcast a gardening show at the same time.

Herald with Reuters

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