Glasgow punch-up: No-one wins

Anyone who wants to argue against televised debates in next year’s General Election campaign will have a much easier job after Salmond v Darling, round two.

For a quarter-of-an-hour, Scotland’s First Minister and the head of the No campaign were formally invited to hurl insults at each other. Shouting, bawling at times, as the alleged moderator stood by and watched.

This was simply the loudest, nastiest section of a ninety-minute festival of shouting, which failed to shed the tiniest beam of light on any of the issues in the Scottish independence debate. For those watching from outside Scotland, evidence perhaps that the issue is worth little of their attention.

The debate on independence has been foul-tempered at times -- this was the point when viewers across the UK saw just how unpleasant it has sometimes been.

Alistair Darling tried to be combative and challenging, and ended up nervous and hesitant. Alex Salmond kept bouncing up from his podium, shouting down Darling any time he might be close to landing a blow.

After all this hot air, it seems to be coming down to currency. Alex Salmond is now trying to reframe the referendum, claiming a Yes vote would be a mandate for Scotland keeping the pound, despite the objections of the Westminster parties: vote Yes, he says, and they’ll have to give us what we want.

Alistair Darling plays the No camp’s trump card. If London refuses to share the pound -- something it has given every indication it will do -- what will a newly independent Scotland actually do? Hinting at a pensions crisis, a welfare crisis, a desperate uncertainty over the Scottish economy -- it could be enough to swing a sizable chunk of undecided voters.

And that’s why he looked so annoyed at his own mistake when he said “Of course we could use the pound”. He went on to say it would mean handing control of the Scottish economy to a foreign government in London, but no-one heard that bit.

“Of course we could use the pound” -- the line that may come back to haunt the No campaign.

But Alistair Darling said something potentially far more significant earlier in the evening. If Scotland votes No next month, that doesn’t mean things carry on as before. The Scottish Parliament will still get more powers, London will have even less influence over Edinburgh.

Effectively Alex Salmond wins either way. If he pulls off an unlikely Yes vote, he’s achieved the independence he dreams of. If it’s a No, he still gets pretty much everything but that.

That may look to voters in England like Scotland winning many of the claimed benefits of independence without bearing any of the costs.

In 1979, Scotland narrowly voted for a devolved assembly, but the turnout wasn’t high enough for it to count. Eighteen years later, Scotland overwhelmingly backed its own parliament.

Seventeen years one, Scotland seems likely to reject independence. But, with even more power shifted to Edinburgh, who would bet against a vote for outright independence sometime in the 2030s? Scotland will have been largely running its own affairs for the best part of forty years. The ties to London will be that much weaker. Breaking away from the rest of the UK might not seem like such a wrench.

By then, perhaps, the politicians leading that debate might conduct themselves in a way more befitting of so significant a moment.

Probably not, though.