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Cards on the table

Cards on the table

Alex Salmond has agreed to a televised debate with Alastair Darling, after previously delaying on the grounds that his first opponent should be David Cameron.

Nicola Sturgeon told the Sunday Herald: “David Cameron should accept the offer of a head-to-head debate with the First Minister, which is the one that all of Scotland wants to see.

“Should the Prime Minister continue to duck this debate, the First Minister is willing to take on Alistair Darling as the Tories’ nominated substitute.

“But David Cameron should know that once that contest has happened and the First Minister has effectively removed Mr Darling as his human shield, we will be knocking on Downing Street’s door urging him to face up to his democratic responsibilities and finally accept a head-to-head debate.”

Yes have long argued that the debate should either be the leader of Yes vs the leader of No – Dennis Canavan vs Alistair Darling – or the First Minister vs the Prime Minister – meaning Salmond and Cameron.

Although this makes sense, no one was convinced that it was the real reason, with even a cursory glance at Cameron’s popularity in Scotland enough to demonstrate why a live debate would be a huge risk for Better Together.

And in many ways the standoff seemed like a win-win for Yes. Cameron debating Salmond would probably lead to a poll boost for independence. But his refusal doesn’t look great either.

After all is there a better argument for independence than the idea that Prime Minister of the Union is so unpopular that he cannot even visit the country he is attempting to woo?

To go back to the often repeated divorce analogy – it would be a bad sign for the relationship if a couple could not appear in the same room for counselling.

Yes know this and they have been using this debate as a stick to beat Better Together with for months.

But the other issue is what effect Salmond’s insistence on waiting for Cameron would have had on public impressions of Yes.

The public have the right to a debate, and if they started to believe that Salmond was delaying a debate with Darling in an attempt to score points there could have been a backlash against Yes.

The referendum represents the biggest democratic decision Scots have ever faced and the public have a right to information.

Up until now both sides have been guilty of withholding it in order to serve their own ends, apparently with the view that showing their cards will weaken their position – either now or in post independence negotiations.

The referendum debate has represented a strange paradox. We are bombarded with arguments, but we have no solid facts. The noise coming from the two sides grows ever louder but the two distinct arguments are no more audible – Yes and Better Together both dispute almost everything.

But the debate has now been agreed and most of the public – stuck in the middle – will hope it will bring something concrete on which to build an opinion.

Darling will be a different proposition altogether from Cameron, and Salmond will be wary simply because he has more riding on it.

The Better Together operation will be content to hold their ground, knowing the campaign is still leading in the polls. Salmond must reach out and take some of Better Together’s support and to do that he will need to take bigger risks.

Up until now the debate has been over the debate, with Yes gaining traction from the argument that Cameron was ‘feart’ – as they put it.

By using these tactics they have built the importance of the debate up and it is possible it will backfire against them.

The pressure is on Yes – they need to gain ground fast and if the debate goes badly Salmond may come to regret his gamesmanship. Yes better hope he has an ace up his sleeve.

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