Campaign leaders prepare to clash over independence

The two politicians will go head to head on live TV to talk about Scotland's future Photo: ITV Border

The Commonwealth Games - including the memorable boxing competition - may be over in Glasgow but tonight in the city there will be a clash of political heavyweights.

Scottish National Party First Minister Alex Salmond will enter the ring with former Chancellor and Better Together leader, Alistair Darling.

It's a bout that is more important even than winning a gold medal. At stake is Scotland's place in the United Kingdom.

Ahead of September's independence referendum on 18 September the two will go head to head for the first time on television.

You will be able to see the debate hosted by STV on the Freeview channel, ITV Border Scotland, tonight from 8pm.

What can we expect?

First there will be a new poll, which debate hosts STV have commissioned. That will be released at 8pm when the debate starts. Stand by for news on that.

What about the format? There will be opening statements, then questions from STV's political editor, Bernard Ponsonby.

After that Mr Darling and Mr Salmond will cross-examine each other and then the audience of people from all over Scotland will be able to ask questions.

Former Chancellor Alastair Darling will attempt to convince those doubting the benefit of Scotland leaving the union that their fears are justified. Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Archive

The bookies have made Mr Salmond the favourite to win the debate, though it is not clear how that will be defined.

On the other hand, the polls show that with some 43 days to go to the referendum the Unionists have a clear lead.

An average of the last six polls by Prof John Curtice of Strathclyde University puts Yes at 44% and No 56%.

What will Mr Salmond and Mr Darling be trying to achieve?

With their massed ranks of spin-doctors we can be sure both sides will claim victory, come what may.

Claims of triumph from either side should therefore be treated with a large pinch of salt.

First Minister Alex Salmond will attempt to allay fears for Scotland's future upon departure from the union. Credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

For Alex Salmond and the 'Yes' side, they will hope to win over what they believe is a substantial number of undecided voters.

They are convinced that the people who tell pollsters they are 'don't knows' are there to be persuaded.

For Mr Salmond the task is to win them over, to take on what the Yes camp call call the Unionists' 'Project Fear' scare stories about independence.

Mr Darling and the 'No' camp are equally certain that the 'don't knows' are mainly 'Nos' who do not want to say so outright.

For him, the task is to convince those people that their doubts over independence are justified and they should vote 'No'.

The former Chancellor will have to strike a balance between attacking the Nationalist case and not laying himself open to the charge of being entirely negative.

So it is the the people in the middle, those wavering or who have genuinely yet to decide, who the two men will be aiming at tonight.

Those are the people who hold the key to Scotland's future. They will decide if more that a union that has existed for more than 300 years is soon to be ended.

The chances are that neither man will tonight land a knock-out punch. If there is a win, my lunch is it will be on points.

But this debate will set the tone for the remaining days of the independence campaign. That is why it is important.

That is why everyone in Scotland - and everyone in the UK who can - should be watching.

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