Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, the head of the "Better Together" campaign, have debated Scottish independence on national TV ahead of next month's vote. It was not broadcast in England.
The "Better Together" camp might have borrowed its name from 21st-century crooner Jack Johnson, but Tuesday's debate was nothing like as soft or cloying as the guitarist's ditty.
Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party (SNP), clashed with Alistair Darling, a Labour MP for Edinburgh who chairs the Better Together campaign. Key issues included EU membership, the retention of the British pound as a currency, taxation, control of the oil-rich North Sea, military spending, and of course autonomy from the British houses of parliament in Westminster.
Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom on September 18. Only Scots living in Scotland are eligible to vote. Polls consistently suggest that voters will reject independence, but the margins have narrowed slightly, and the "Yes Scotland" camp was hoping for a late debate boost from the fiery speaker Salmond.
"My case this evening is simple," Salmond said. "No one, absolutely no one, would do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in Scotland. On the 18th of September we have the opportunity of a lifetime - we should seize it with both hands."
Salmond argues that the partly-independent Scottish government would be freer, better governed and wealthier on its own. Taxation policy is one area where Westminster has ceded comparatively few powers to Scotland.
'What is plan B?'
Darling, a former British chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), said that independence could cause several problems for Scotland - on issues including currency, EU membership and energy security.
"If we decide to leave, there is no going back, there is no second chance. For me the choice is very, very clear: I want to use the strength of the United Kingdom to make Scotland stronger," Darling said, adding that the current partial autonomy for Scotland was "the best of both worlds."
Darling also scored points with his repeated question to Salmond on an independent Scotland's currency, should Britian reject his proposal of currency union. "What is plan B?" Darling asked.
"I am in favor of keeping the pound sterling," Salmond replied.
The Scottish First Minister fired back at Better Together on issues including EU membership. Salmond said his rivals had misrepresented quotes from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to suggest independence would mean an EU exit, dubbing the "no" campaign "Project Fear."
He then argued that even remaining a part of the UK would not guarantee EU membership for Scotland, pointing to a possible British referendum on the issue in 2017, if the Conservative party wins reelection next year.
"I want Scotland to stay inside the European Union," Salmond said.
Although educated in Scotland and a longstanding MP for Edinburgh south-west, Darling's critics perceive the London-born former Westminster cabinet member perhaps only as partly Scottish. One audience member asked Darling whether or not he had an address in Scotland during the debate, prompting the response: "of course."
For Scots' eyes only
Viewers in the rest of the United Kingdom could only watch on the Internet; regional broadcaster STV aired the debate while UK-wide affiliate network ITV opted not to show it nationally, saying it would only air it to viewers who could vote.
Salmond's SNP won 45 percent of the Scottish vote in 2011 general elections, with Labour a clear second power in Scotland. British Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives hold just 15 seats out of 129 north of the border; Salmond had initially hoped to debate the highly-unpopular prime minister.
Before Tuesday's debate, Britain's three largest political parties all pledged greater powers for Scotland's partially-autonomous parliament in the event of a "no" vote next month.
msh/dr (AP, Reuters)