Salmond vs Darling debate is chance to win undecideds

This is it.

Rarely do you get a second chance in politics but Alex Salmond gets one tonight in the BBC’s referendum debate with Alistair Darling.

Of course, Salmond is a man accustomed to overcoming tough odds. He is leader (for the second time) of a party which once expelled him for left-wing agitation. In 2007, he ended one-party rule in a country where voting Labour had become a national religion. And in 2011, he defied political gravity by taking the SNP into majority government despite an electoral system designed to engineer coalitions.

But this evening’s Scotland Decides showdown, which airs in Scotland on BBC One from 8.30pm until 10pm, will be more than the First Minister’s second chance. It will likely be his last chance to win over those voters who will decide the outcome of the referendum, namely women and traditional Labour voters.

STV’s September 2 town hall debate will make for exciting theatre, and there will be some wavering electors still up for grabs, but a sea change in public opinion needs time to embed itself in the popular consciousness. That means people sharing clips and memes on social media, journalists writing about the shifts in public opinion, and broadcasters reporting the impact on the polls.

In short, undecided voters have to be assured that others share their thoughts and feelings. Peer pressure isn’t just for the playground.

Although his spin doctors will not admit it in public, Salmond lost the first debate to an unexpectedly confident and forceful Alistair Darling. The former Chancellor hounded the First Minister over currency, demanding that he outline a Plan B after the three main parties in the House of Commons ruled out a sterling union with an independent Scotland.

The SNP leader’s refusal to do so, despite his fiscal commission working group having sketched out a number of fall-back options, brought us an unfamiliar sight in Scottish politics: Likeable, populist, in-it-for-Scotland Alex Salmond being booed by voters.

The Nationalist chief will go to every length to avoid a repeat of those scenes tonight. There will be no flippant, time-wasting questions about which side of the road we would drive on or what would happen to the pandas if we vote Yes. He will not allow himself to be cast as Fox Mulder to Darling’s unbelieving Dana Scully with a question on little green men. The truth can stay out there tonight.

The last few weeks have seen the Yes campaign abandon its shiny happy people strategy in favour of the Chicken Little approach. The sky is falling, or will fall, on the NHS if Scotland votes to remain in the United Kingdom.

This line is premised on the assumption that NHS spending cuts in England (which none of the three main parties at Westminster advocates) would force cuts in Scotland’s devolved health service (the budget for which is decided by the Scottish Government but comes out of a block grant from Westminster that is tied to UK spending).

The merits of this claim are debatable but no more so than Better Together’s insistence that an independent Scotland could not use the pound. (It could, either in a currency union agreed in exchange for a big-ticket item like keeping Trident on the Clyde or through sterlingisation, whereby Scotland would use the UK’s currency in much the same way Panama uses the US dollar and does just nicely, thank you very much.)

Who’s right and who’s wrong, that quaint old notion, isn’t really the point. This is now a campaign of two Projects Fear. Vote Yes and lose the pound. Vote No and lose your doctor. Salmond and Darling will not replace the names Lincoln and Douglas in the annals of elevating political debate.

Fear works. The object for the two men is not so much to refute the other’s charges as it is to scare undecided and soft Yes and No voters over to their side. We will hear the word “risk” a good deal tonight from both men. Salmond will tell us a No vote risks leaving Scotland’s NHS vulnerable to cuts from George Osborne, whom the Yes campaign has reimagined as a scalpel-wielding Thatcherite bogeyman.

Staying in the UK, he is likely to warn, also risks our place in Europe, should David Cameron’s promised referendum on membership of the EU be won by the forces of Euroscepticism. Other risk factors to listen out for: Tory majority government, Ukip, and tuition fees.

Au contraire, Darling will retort. The only risks are those we face if we vote for independence, or “separation” to use his preferred term. “Separation” will put our economy, our jobs, the very pound in our pocket under threat. A Yes vote, he will insist, is a vote to leave the EU and try to renegotiate our way in from the outside — and the same goes for Nato.

Volatile North Sea revenues are a risk. Removing Trident is a risk to the defence industry. Cutting taxes for big business is a risk to public services. And how will we fund the pension pot for our older citizens?

Salmond’s task, as Wings over Scotland’s Stuart Campbell astutely notes, is to corner Darling into pleading with voters to trust that the Tories won’t cut the NHS in England. (In government, the Conservatives have actually ringfenced health spending but that fact will get short shrift amongst Cameron-averse Scottish voters.) If Darling falls into this trap, he will hand the Yes campaign an eleventh-hour gift.

For Darling, the aim is to force the First Minister to concede a Plan B on currency — then mercilessly attack whatever it is. If it’s the euro, prepare for a gruesome retelling of the eurozone crisis, A Nightmare on Merkel Street. If sterlingisation, get ready for “Panama Pound” and snipes at its principal pushers: the right-wing Adam Smith Institute.

None of this will be particularly edifying and the raised stakes and ticking clock are bound to make this debate even sharper than the first. Some exchanges will be fiery, others downright belligerent. The future of a country — of four countries, really — hangs in the balance.

Welcome to 23 days to go until Scotland votes. There are no more chances. This is it.

Originally published on STV News.

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