Darling strikes a blow for the Union

Alex Salmond’s campaign for Scottish independence suffered an unexpected setback this week after he lost Tuesday night’s TV debate with Alistair Darling, says Simon Johnson in The Daily Telegraph.

The first minister had been the bookmakers’ clear favourite and Salmond predicted his opponent would have the ‘heebie jeebies’ about facing him. In the event, an ICM snap poll handed victory to Darling by 56% to 44%.

Salmond needed to win “resoundingly”, given the No campaign’s consistent lead in the polls, says Janan Ganesh in the FT. Although the confrontation “was never going to be remembered alongside the Lincoln-Douglas debates” over slavery, something of the essence of each campaign came through during the 100 minutes.

Darling – the trained lawyer – was “forensic in exposing the technical knottiness of ending the union”, if hectoring in tone. Salmond – a “first-class politician” – “radiated wonder at the quasi-Scandinavian miracle” that an independent Scotland would become, “but his shallow streak was hard to ignore”.

Pressed on the currency, he repeatedly insisted that forfeiting the pound wasn’t an option. Darling’s achievement was to ignore the advice of thecommentariat to make an emotional case, as the nationalists have done, and to use hard-headed arguments.

It helps that people are “loss-averse”, says John McDermott in the FT. The questions asked by the studio audience were “practical and specific”: about the pound, free prescriptions, free tuition fees. Darling was also well served by the fact that it is in his nature to challenge assumptions and probe inaccuracies. “He does not do the vision thing well – but he does the derision thing nicely.”

Darling talked sense, but he didn’t go nearly far enough, says Max Hastings in the Daily Mail. He didn’t dare say frankly to the audience: “An independent Scotland will be Iceland without the fish, a dependency culture without visible means of support, a basket case bobbing on the remotest beach of Europe.”

He didn’t, because Salmond mocks the No campaign as “Project Fear”, and also because “Scottish pride is affronted if anybody reminds them how meagre is their income-tax base, how feeble is entrepreneurialism north of the border, how drugged on state subsidy their nation has become”.

Salmond spoke as if Scotland were Saudi Arabia, “its only problem how to spend vast natural wealth”. He said nobody would do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work there. “The evidence suggests that this is piffle”, but Darling didn’t dare contradict him.

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