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Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling are leading rival Yes and No campaigns in Scotland’s referendum on independence. (DAVID MOIR AND LUKE MacGREGOR/REUTERS)
Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling are leading rival Yes and No campaigns in Scotland’s referendum on independence. (DAVID MOIR AND LUKE MacGREGOR/REUTERS)

Scotland’s Yes side faces vital test in first TV debate on independence Add to ...

Through nearly three decades in politics – all of them spent arguing the case for Scotland’s independence – Alex Salmond has never faced two hours as crucial to his cause as those ahead of him Tuesday.

Six weeks before Scotland votes on whether to break away from the rest of the United Kingdom, and with polls showing the Yes side creeping within reach of that goal, Mr. Salmond – Scotland’s First Minister and the head of the Scottish National Party – is set to go head-to-head with Alistair Darling, head of the Better Together camp, in the first televised debate of the campaign.

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Both sides are hoping to win over the almost 20 per cent of Scots who say they are undecided on the question of whether the country should go it alone.

With most of Scotland’s four million eligible voters expected to tune in to cheer, jeer, and perhaps be persuaded, the debate will likely prove to be a defining moment of Mr. Salmond’s career. The Yes side is banking on their charismatic, though occasionally bombastic, leader to score a decisive win over Mr. Darling, who is seen as a much weaker debater.

Until now, the 59-year-old Mr. Salmond has remained on the sidelines of the campaign, leaving his deputy Nicola Sturgeon to handle much of the day-to-day media. The debate, in many ways, marks his grand entry into the referendum.

Mr. Salmond is frequently described here as a “marmite politician,” inferring voters either love him or hate him. (Marmite is a spread derived from yeast extract that is beloved by a vocal minority in Scotland and the U.K., and despised by the rest.)

He reportedly spent much of the past few weeks rigorously preparing for the debate, including sessions with a well-known lifestyle coach and “happiness guru,” Claire Howell, who is said to have barred the first minister from using the word “freedom” during the debate. She has coached him to refer to Scotland’s choice in more positive terms, such as “historic” and “transformational.”

Aides have also been telling Mr. Salmond to temper his optimism about the economic prospects of an independent Scotland (campaign literature from the Yes side suggests Scotland would be “one of the world’s wealthiest nations”) with realistic talk about the challenges that would follow a Yes vote. Many of undecided voters say they aren’t convinced by the SNP’s portrayal of a sunnier future if Scotland breaks with the rest of Britain.

The Yes side has told Scots they would be, per capita, £1,000 (about $1,800) a year better off if the country were independent, while the Better Together side has said Scots would be out of pocket 1,400 pounds per year if the country leaves the U.K.

Voters will be asked on Sept. 18 to answer yes or no to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

The pro-union Better Together campaign – which recently adopted a new “No Thanks” slogan borrowed from the federalist campaign in Quebec’s 1980 referendum – has been accused of being too negative. But it has successfully raised questions about whether an independent Scotland could afford its current level of public services, and whether it could continue using the British pound sterling, as Mr. Salmond proposes. Also uncertain is whether Scotland would be automatically be admitted to the European Union following a Yes vote.

Mr. Darling is seen a much greyer figure than Mr. Salmond, a serious politician with limited charisma. (He was described in The Guardian newspaper this week as “calm, safe and even remarkably dull” as well as “like a Church of Scotland minister.”)

But the former Chancellor of the Exchequer has credibility as the man who steered Britain’s banking system through the 2008 financial collapse.

Many Scots see Mr. Darling as standing in for Prime Minister David Cameron in Tuesday’s debate. Mr. Cameron is widely unpopular in Scotland and has refused Mr. Salmond’s calls for a head-to-head debate, arguing that he, as a resident of England, has no right to participate in the campaign.

At least one or two more debates between Mr. Salmond and Mr. Darling are expected during the final six weeks of the campaign, though dates have not yet been set.

The leaders of the three main pro-union parties in British parliament tried to give Mr. Darling some added ammunition ahead of the debate, publishing a joint declaration Tuesday that promised to “strengthen” the powers of Scotland’s own parliament in the wake of a No vote, including giving it new authority over taxation and social spending. A spokeswoman for Mr. Salmond dismissed the offer as “a rehash of old promises.”

The Salmond-Darling clash came on the heels of Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games, which were seen as a success both for the city and for Scotland’s national team, which won a record 19 gold medals, good for fourth on the overall medal table, behind England, Australia and Canada.

The burst of flag-waving, however, hasn’t dramatically changed the campaign. Some polls show the Yes side gradually creeping upwards – hitting a high of 47 per cent in one survey this week – while others show Yes mired around the 40 per cent mark and unable to make up ground.

A “poll of polls” that was published last week by Strathclyde University – which compiled the results of opinion polls conducted by six separate firms – found that 57 per cent of decided voters are planning to vote No on Sept. 18, compared to 43 per cent who will say Yes.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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