September 18th 2014 | Scotland

Second debate: preview

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 25 August 2014
darling and salmond

Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond may have both now completed the ice bucket challenge but tonight’s debate still looks to be a pretty heated affair.

In fact given the way the campaign has consumed the two representatives, having a bucket of water tipped on their heads was probably quite a refreshing break. Their preparations will be intense.

Given that Alistair Darling was seen to have had his best moments while casting doubt on the First Minister’s plans for a post-independence currency union, it would be surprising if the former Chancellor of the Exchequer did not return to the economics of independence in tonight’s debate.

Weirdly Salmond’s best possible response – that he cannot decide the currency, because he represents the SNP, not the Yes negotiating team – is the one he seems most reluctant to give.

It is more likely that Salmond will question Darling’s financial credibility, given that he presided over the biggest economic collapse in Britain’s history. 

Citing Darling’s prediction in 2008 that the banking system was stable and that the economy would continue to grow, Jim Sillars today wrote an open letter to Darling asking: “Why, given your abysmal record of forecasting, should we believe your dire warnings about our economic prospects with independence?”

The difficulty for Salmond in raising a similar point is that he did not predict the financial crisis either. 

Attacking the Westminster Government’s ineptitude would leave Salmond open to questions over his decision, for example, to welcome the disastrous RBS takeover of ABN Amro.

The First Minister may turn the tables on Darling’s demands for certainty in the event of a Yes, asking him what powers a No vote would guarantee. 

It is also likely Salmond will push the idea that the NHS will be endangered in the event of a No vote, with cuts to the English budget meaning a reduction in the Barnett Formula, and so on NHS spending here.

He would be sensible to follow Nicola Sturgeon’s lead and ask Darling why, if we are Better Together, 100,000 children in Scotland will be pushed into poverty by 2020. 

Darling would be entitled to ask how Salmond can guarantee a Yes would fix this – as a recent independence campaign poster suggests.

Welfare certainly offers Salmond a better frame of debate in which to operate than currency has done so far.

But some things are almost certain. Darling will argue that Scotland would be too small to bail out the financial industry if it collapsed again, but neither side will argue that it should be reduced.

Salmond will argue that there is oil for years to come, but neither will suggest that it would be dangerous to burn it.

The fact is that both are representing constitutional futures, not policies. Expecting solid promises from either is about as naïve as expecting them to get along. 

Ice buckets aside, the debate looks to promise more heat than light.

Liam Kirkaldy