By Alistair Smout
GLASGOW Scotland (Reuters) - The leader of the campaign for Scottish independence failed to turn a U.S.-style television debate into a victory for his cause, six weeks before Scotland votes on whether to break up the United Kingdom.
In an unexpected setback for those who support a breakaway, Alex Salmond, head of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), failed to land a decisive blow in a lively debate on Tuesday night against Alistair Darling, leader of the campaign to keep Scotland in the UK.
With the pro-independence camp trailing in opinion polls ahead of a Sept. 18 referendum that will decide whether Scotland breaks its 307-year union with England, most commentators had predicted that Salmond, a powerful speaker, would notch up a rhetorical victory to breathe new life into his campaign.
By contrast, Darling, a former British finance minister with the manner of a schoolmaster, had been expected to flop.
But many observers said the 59-year-old Salmond had not performed as well as expected and critics said he had failed to craft a convincing economic vision for an independent Scotland and its 5.2 million people.
An ICM poll of viewers for the London-based Guardian newspaper indicated that Salmond had lost the debate, while Ladbrokes bookmakers lengthened the odds of Salmond securing independence to 4/1 against (20 percent) from 7/2 (22 percent).
"My case this evening is simple: No one, absolutely no one, would do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in Scotland," Salmond told an audience in Glasgow in front of a screen bearing Scotland's white and blue flag.
"On the 18th of September, we have the opportunity of a lifetime – we should seize it with both hands.”
The ICM poll indicated that 47 percent of 512 viewers polled thought Darling had won, while 37 percent gave it to Salmond and 15 percent said they did not know.
"I don't think it was Alex Salmond's best night," said Iain Macwhirter, a political commentator for the Herald newspaper in Scotland. "Sometimes Alex Salmond's attempt to be statesmanlike looked liked complacency, and I am not sure that will have gone down terribly well with the voters."
"Darling draws first blood" ran the headline in the Herald. "A Bloody Nose for Salmond" led the Scottish Daily Mail while the Scottish Daily Express said: "Salmond Stumbles As 'Quiet Man' Darling Punches His Way to Victory in TV Debate."
Surveys consistently give opponents of independence a substantial lead over those who want to end the union with England, though up to a quarter of voters have yet to decide.
A poll from Ipsos MORI released as the TV debate commenced indicated that support for independence had risen to 40 percent, the highest level that Ipsos had yet recorded, but found an unchanged 54 percent against. [ID:nL6N0QB5X2]
"There was no clear winner, but Darling probably did better than the expectation was at the beginning," said Mark Diffley, Ipsos MORI's research director in Scotland. "A lot of people thought it would be very one-sided and that Salmond would be a clear winner, and I don't think that's the case at all."
Salmond argued that an independent Scotland could build a fairer and richer society.
He told the audience the British government spent far too much on nuclear weapons and that it had failed the people of Scotland. Salmond has promised to rid Scotland of nuclear arms if Scotland becomes independent.
"If we decide to leave," countered Darling, "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, a silver-haired Scot who served in the last British Labour government, focused on economic arguments, particularly what plans Salmond had for its post-independence currency and its future revenues.
At times raising his voice, he pushed Salmond hard on how an independent Scotland could keep the pound, given that the British government had excluded a currency union.
"What is plan B?" Darling repeatedly asked. "That's using sterling like Panama or Ecuador uses the dollar."
"I am in favour of keeping the pound sterling," Salmond said, arguing that the currency was as much Scotland's as England's.
Sometimes reading from notes and quoting news reports, Salmond branded the "No" campaign as 'Project Fear', one of his favourite criticisms, and complained about its tactics.
He also argued that being ruled from London, whose government wants to secure EU reform before putting Britain's continued membership to a referendum, could push Scotland out of the EU against its will.
"I want Scotland to stay inside the European Union," he said.
Asked about the perception that Salmond had lost the debate, a spokesman for his campaign said: "Darling was there to knock, knock, knock. I don't think he said a positive word in the whole two hours."
Salmond's supporters argue that Scotland, which has its own parliament and judicial system but lacks substantial tax-raising powers, would be freer, better governed and richer on its own.
The "No" campaign argues Scotland would be unable to keep the British pound, that tens of thousands of jobs in the defence and financial sectors would be at risk, and that an independent Scotland might find it hard to rejoin the European Union.
Only voters registered in Scotland can take part in the referendum and only viewers north of the border with England were able to watch the debate on terrestrial TV. [nL6N0PP4QO]
In the rest of Britain, the broadcaster ITV aired a gardening show at the same time. Some Scots living in England tried but failed to watch the debate on ITV's website.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, Andrew Osborn and Alistair Smout; Additional reporting by William James; Editing by Kevin Liffey)