In a month’s time, Scots living north of the border will be able to vote on their independence.
On August 5, 2014, a debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling took place in Glasgow. In case you missed it and would like to watch it, you can find it on STV Player.
The sponsor was Carte D’Or Eton Mess. Hmm.
Bernard Ponsonby presided over the debate. In the audience, he said, were 300 ‘specially chosen’ voters.
Putting aside Darling’s record as chancellor not so long ago, he came up with good arguments punctuated by a few great lines, reminiscent of a schoolmaster: ‘Sometimes we must say no’, ‘Imagine you are wrong’ and ‘stupidity on stilts’.
Salmond relied on emotional appeals which lacked substance.
Salmond spoke first, asking the audience to consider children. Think of ‘the children relying on food banks’. Think of Westminster being out of touch with Scotland’s needs. He urged people to vote ‘yes’ on September 18: ‘seize it with both hands’.
Darling replied, ‘Sometimes we must say no. There is no second chance’ of returning to the Union.
A discussion between them followed on polling figures. Salmond said that ‘yes’ has gained ground. Darling maintained that the polls were static.
Salmond said he wants a ‘prosperous but just society’ for children and the disabled. Darling pointed out that our markets are ‘unimpeded’ and provide ‘a massive gain’ for the Union.
Salmond told the audience that an independent Scotland meant they would always be able to vote for their own candidates. Darling warned that Scotland has the highest proportion of elderly people in the UK. Independence would mean that Scots would have to pick up the associated costs at a time when North Sea oil revenues are declining. Darling then asked Salmond why he was pushing for independence when Scotland already has its own parliament.
Cross examination — and Plan B
Salmond and Darling had 12 minutes apiece to cross-examine each other’s arguments. Currency dominated this exchange.
Salmond insisted, ‘It’s our pound as well as your pound!’
He added that, whatever happens, he has a ‘Plan B’.
Intrigued, Darling asked what this Plan B is. He asked twice. Salmond responded by saying all the information was in the 600+-page independence document and that Darling didn’t know what it said.
Salmond made it clear he didn’t want to go with the euro.
Darling then asked how Scotland could use the pound without their own central bank. Salmond responded by criticising Darling’s record as chancellor.
Darling pointed out that Scotland’s keeping the pound was hardly the sign of an independent country.
At this point, the audience became rather noisy.
Darling warned that independence would make it ‘impossible’ for Scotland to borrow money, therefore, it was ‘stupidity on stilts’.
Salmond called the Better Together campaign ‘Project Fear’. Darling refuted this and called Salmond’s repartee ‘barroom chat’, accusing him of portraying jokes as facts.
Darling told Salmond that if he hoped to enter Scotland in the EU it would take much longer than he envisages, adding that independence would lead to ‘massive uncertainties’.
Darling again mentioned declining North Sea oil revenues. Salmond dismissed this warning, saying that Scotland was like Norway, ‘a successful small country’. He defended this description by saying that even David Cameron had used the same words. Darling countered by saying the risks outweighed the opportunities.
The debaters then began talking over each other with the audience joining in. This was the debate’s noisy climax.
Salmond concluded this portion of the debate by mentioning children suffering from unfair policies such as the bedroom tax.
Backstage, a small panel of Scottish politicians were watching the proceedings and commenting during the breaks. Kezia Dugdale, a Better Together Labour MSP, said that Scots were most concerned about the currency issue: ‘What would they use for money? How much would it be worth?’
Questions from the audience — and Plan B
The final part of the debate, with questions from the audience, was the longest and most interesting.
Not surprisingly, money in an independent Scotland was their main preoccupation.
Alistair McKean (undecided but leaning towards ‘no’) asked about Salmond’s ‘contingency plans’, i.e. Plan B. Salmond simply responded: ‘I want what’s best for Scotland’. Darling said that currency union could work only with economic and political union.
Ponsonby took a few questions in succession for further discussion. One lady asked for details on this ‘unknown’ Plan B. Another asked to what extent North Sea oil revenues were underwritten. A man asked what revenues Scotland could realistically expect from oil in future.
Ponsonby seized on Plan B. Salmond merely repeated his non-answers before accusing Better Together of employing ‘scare tactics’.
Darling warned that an independent Scotland could not force the rest of the UK to underwrite its banking system which is worth 12 times the value of Scotland’s assets as a country. Salmond’s response was more criticism of Darling’s record as chancellor ‘when the UK banks went bust’.
Public spending and revenues
Christine McInally from Glasgow asked why Scotland should continue to subsidise the rest of the UK. Darling said that Scotland also partakes of the public purse. Salmond countered by saying that over the past 33 years the Scots have paid in £8bn more than they have received. Ms McInally said that neither side answered her question.
A businessman remarked that Salmond’s responses were ‘snide’ and unhelpful. Another man asked how an independent Scotland could hope to negotiate with powerful multi-national oil companies when, up to now, it has taken the British government to do it.
Salmond said Darling had understimated North Sea oil revenues by a few million pounds. Darling said that Scotland had overestimated oil revenues by £4.5m over the past few years. Salmond criticised the British government for not having set up a separate oil revenues fund.
Health and education
The discussion then turned to health costs and education. Tim McAlpine-Scott asked about free prescriptions. Salmond pledged his support for free prescriptions and ‘free education’. Darling pointed out that Salmond was depriving underprivileged Scots of free university places whilst charging English and Welsh full fees. Members of the audience responding to the tuition fees discussion agreed that Scotland’s current system was unfair to everyone. Political waffle followed.
Robert Allen, a ‘yes’ proponent, asked about state pensions. Salmond stated that there would be no adverse effect in an independent Scotland because people had already paid into the system. However, Darling warned that state pensions depend on the ability of the current pool of taxpayers to pay pensions. Allen did not seem reassured by Salmond’s answer.
Two other members of the audience also wanted to know more about how Salmond could guarantee the safety of state pensions in an independent Scotland. Darling said that even if you’ve paid in all your life, what you will receive when you retire will depend on the size of the taxpayer pool at the time. He added that this would ‘come as a surprise’ to many. Indeed it does, because this is the first time I’ve ever heard a politician come out and say it so clearly.
Salmond’s response concerned persuading 37,000 young Scots from emigrating and increasing immigration.
Darling, in the spirit of Better Together, emphasised the importance of working together as a Union. He added, ‘No new boundaries. No new borders’.
Salmond said that Scotland was governed by people Scots didn’t vote for: ‘This is our moment — let’s take it.’
The panel of politicians backstage found both sides unconvincing but each thought their man did better than the other. Contrary to what the ‘yes’ people said, Darling wasn’t ‘shouty’ at all. He had facts rather than emotional appeals. Salmond had no real answers.
And we’re still no clearer on what his Plan B is.
All three pro-Union parties have produced individual proposals for extending devolution after a No vote and promised to include them in their manifestos for next year’s general election.
… this is the first time the three leaders have formally united to pledge the devolution of powers over income tax and housing benefit.
Those readers who missed my post from December 2013 might find what could happen in the months that follow of interest — and amusement.