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Why Salmond May Be Losing The Independence Debate

08/08/2014 15:43 BST | Updated 08/10/2014 10:59 BST

A few days have now passed since Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling faced each other to debate one of the biggest issues facing the future of the United Kingdom - Scottish independence. Over these few days I have been thinking over the rhetorical styles that both have used to make their arguments. Strategically, Salmond's most beneficial outcomes would have been able to convince his audience that a vote for Yes is not a vote for him or the SNP. By doing so he would have been able to present a positive vision for an independent Scotland, even for those who voted Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative. This may have created a sense of positive momentum because he would have then been able to position the debate above party politics, thereby emerging as a national unifying leader.

The creation of an independent Scotland will set off a chain of repercussions that go well beyond what is currently being debated. Pragmatically, with a population of 5m (approximately the same as Yorkshire) Scotland will be cut off from the resources of the rest of the UK. It will have to provide the infrastructure of a state with the taxes of 5m, and if it ghosts sterling then it will have little control over important issues facing its economy. Granted, they could then simply blame the UK government for its woes, however London would then be under little obligation to listen to those concerns unless it is beneficial for the UK to do so. Rhetorically, Salmond deflects these issues by saying Scotland has the passion and determination to make it work. No doubt he believes it, and on the Yes camp it is an accurate assessment, but hope and dreams will not answer the important fiscal questions that will set the stage for whether independence is successful or not. (Should it prove not successful, then - as Darling noted - there is no going back given the rest of the UK will have moved on).

England has also been cast by the Yes campaign as the bogeyman. To do so England, Westminster and the Conservative Party are all conflated as one - it is Salmond's rhetorical 'other'. As the bogeyman, England is the eternal oppressor that 'hates' Scotland simply because they are English. This is of course untrue, however this strategy plays into a sense of grievance that Salmond has created. Of course, this is a vital part of the strategy because it enables him to portray himself as the saviour of the Scottish people, who can lead them to prosperity and to be rid of their enemies through independence. It is a way of constructing his character - the man who has the drive and passion to stand up to the English. This disingenuous strategy was used by Salmond in the debate, in which he alluded to Darling's Tory allies, whilst utterly ignoring Labour opponents such as Gordon Brown. For Salmond, this is an attempt to connect the highly divisive Tory image of indifferent Thatcherism with Darling and all those who are opposed to independence, regardless of their actual ideological position. Sadly for Salmond, it also means he failed to present that essential positive and unifying vision because he resorted to party politics in the most blatant way. This also created the impression that a Yes vote was indeed a vote for him and the SNP, alienating potential supporters.

As a side issue it was also interesting to hear Salmond taking Osborne's line to attack Darling for causing the economic crisis in 2008. This was an attempt to undermine Darling's credibility, which would delight his Yes supporters but leave undecided social democrats wondering why he was using such a conservative line of attack.

More generally the debate has thus far been confined to Scotland, however as the date of the referendum approaches it will spread out, not only across the UK but also the EU (particularly in those countries facing separatists of their own). However, political elites in Northern Ireland will be watching this with the most interest. Should Scotland become an independent nation, then the Republicans in Northern Ireland may have been afforded a precedent to adopt. Even if Scotland votes to remain in the UK, then the debate has opened the doorway to countenance a sense of greater sense of autonomy in areas that once may have been content not to rock that particular boat. As a high profile and effective communicator, Salmond has afforded Scotland at least the opportunity to express its ethnic and civic nationalisms as an independent nation. Whether the electorate chooses to take up that opportunity remains to be seen.

In summation, Alex Salmond has failed to convince in the first debate because he was divisive and unable to answer vital questions about the currency. Putting that to one side, however, the debate over Scottish independence has called into serious question the nature of the United Kingdom. Although the Union of the Kingdoms will remain regardless of the result (the Queen will remain head of state, thus we're mostly talking about political independence rather than issues of the sovereign), what has changed is a sense of inevitable change. The face of that change will depend on how political elites respond to the result, regardless of what it is. And, of course, we may not have seen the end of calls for Scottish independence - the possible European referendum could kick start it all again if England and Scotland vote in different ways...