Salmond turns tables on Darling in key debate

SNP leader delivers shot in the arm to Yes campaign

Scottish first minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond (second from right) during a visit to the Ferguson Shipbuilders’ yard in Port Glasgow yesterday. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Scottish first minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond (second from right) during a visit to the Ferguson Shipbuilders’ yard in Port Glasgow yesterday. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Wed, Aug 27, 2014, 01:00

The workmen were in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow yesterday, removing cables, equipment and staging that had served Monday’s TV clash between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling.

Each debate needs a victor. This time, it was Scottish National Party leader Salmond, who scored heavily and repeatedly against the former Labour chancellor of the exchequer – who had won the first debate.

However, debates are for loyalists. The crucial section of the Scottish population are those labelled as undecided – and this number is still extraordinarily large.

The term “undecided”, however, is a journalistic shorthand for something altogether more complicated. In truth, nearly everyone has some inkling of what they want to do, even if it is often confused and contradictory.

In some cases, they want “more information” – though often that equals an impossible, unmeetable demand for guarantees about life’s future.

Sometimes, they already have a view, but they want it validated; or they have a point of influence that can be focused upon/exploited (delete according to bias) by both sides.

For the Yes side, that key point of influence is the national health service (NHS), a subject barely mentioned by the SNP in its White Paper, and mentioned only once by Salmond in the first debate.

Since then, “Yes, Scotland” – the pro-independence campaign group dominated by the SNP, but there are others involved – has hammered away at the issue relentlessly.

In England, medical services are being contracted out more and more to private companies, but the NHS there still pays for them, not the patient.

Private contracting

In Scotland, the Scottish government, which runs the NHS there, has refused to countenance such private contracting – an opinion largely shared across the political spectrum.

However, “Yes, Scotland” has said that privatisation in England inevitably threatens Scotland’s budget, even though NHS spending has gone up every year since 2010, despite cutbacks elsewhere.

Some of the tactics have bordered upon the deceitful, particularly an allegation that cancer operations in Newcastle and Gateshead have had to be cancelled because of cuts.

The allegations has led to medical fury in the northeast of England, with the head of the NHS in Newcastle describing the claims “as the biggest lot of crap that I have ever heard”.

However, the tactics are working, with canvassers on both sides saying fears about the NHS are coming up again and again on the doorsteps.

Meanwhile, there is oil. Businessman Ian Wood, who authored a major report on Scotland’s oil stocks, last week adopted a far more pessimistic view of the future than he had ever done before.

Despite Darling’s attempts to strike home, the issue is not cutting through with the public, who heard a cacophony of energy industry voices decry Woods’s prediction.

Today, the debates are finished, but the signals are already there for the final run-in to “Scotland’s date with destiny”, as Salmond never tires of describing it.

Darling, as he was on Monday, will be increasingly tarnished as “the Tories’ poodle”, as “Yes, Scotland” seeks to part Labour supporters from the No side.

Equally, the No side, which is still leading in the polls despite the more vocal Yes campaign, will focus on oil, currency, the future of welfare, and pensions.

Significantly, however, the choices surrounding Scotland’s future currency are not hitting home in the way the UK government, pro-union lobby Better Together and a host of others believed it would.

In the first debate, Salmond failed to put forward a “Plan B” if he did not secure a currency union with the remaining parts of the UK after a Yes vote on September 18th.

His failure then led to the verdict that he lost the debate; yet the opinion polls reported a slight rise for the Yes campaign in the days afterwards.

On Monday night, the Scottish first minister put forward “three Plan Bs” – a new, floating currency; a currency fixed to the pound; and unilateral use of sterling, along with the currency union.


And he put forward the other options almost casually, clearly believing that he could without frightening the audience – which could be the shrewdest move of the campaign, or its biggest blunder.

Darling countered, saying he was asking Scots to take a chance, but a majority in the audience – one chosen to be representative of Scottish opinion today – bayed.

Everything is a bluff, “Yes, Scotland” argues, though the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats rule it out. It could be a manifesto pledge for some in next year’s general election.

Now Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones has said he would oppose a currency union if Scotland votes for independence, making it clear that he will expect to have a stronger deciding voice than anyone in Edinburgh on the matter.

Meanwhile, there is one issue above all that is getting little or no attention in Scotland: independence will require legislation in early 2016 in the House of Commons.

Undoubtedly, sober heads there would endeavour to keep the debate grounded; but given its often febrile air, a pact requiring currency union is not one certain to be backed by MPs, whatever ministers say.

Occasionally in the last few weeks, ancient Scottish feelings about the Sassenach have been given vent in public meetings, if not by the principals on the Yes side.

Curiously, however, the most striking feature – particularly about the assumptions being made about what English will accept, or not – is not how low Scots’ opinion of the English is, but how high.