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Tough questions and fractious exchanges as big beasts clash

FOOD banks and Trident versus the pound and declining oil - these were the issues dominating the televised debate that kickstarted the key endgame in the referendum campaign.

Clashing before a live audience of 350 voters in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and an STV audience across the country, First Minister Alex Salmond led the charge for the Yes Campaign against Alistair Darling, leader of Better Together and former Labour Chancellor.

As the party spin doctors milled around the Conservatoire in Glasgow and both sides ­frantically tweeted their take on events, the two big beasts of the campaign clashed for the first time.

After tough questioning from host Bernard Ponsonby, the two contenders questioned each other amid increasingly fractious exchanges. The audience also had their chance, and at the end there were closing exchanges.

In his summing up as the dust settled, Mr Darling said: "Too much of this debate has been characterised by guess work, blind faith and crossed fingers," while Mr Salmond countered: "Voting Yes is a vote for ambition over fear. This is our moment, let's take it."

The First Minister opened with his social justice pitch, saying: "Within 10 miles of where I'm standing in Glasgow there are 35 food banks in this city and its surroundings serving thousands of families with children.

"How is it in this prosperous country we have thousands of families with children dependent on food banks?

"Within 25 miles of where I'm standing there is Europe's largest concentration of weapons of mass destruction and the UK Government intends to spend £100 billion - including £8bn of Scotland's money - in maintaining these weapons of mass destruction."

Mr Darling opened saying: "There are times that for the love of our family and the love of our country it's sometimes best to say No, not because we can't, but simply because it's not the best thing to do.

"In six weeks' time we will make the biggest decision we've ever made here in Scotland, and remember this: if we decide to leave there is no going back, there is no second chance.

"For me the choice is very, very clear - I want to use the strength of the UK to make Scotland stronger. We can have the best of both worlds."

During the questioning from veteran inquisitor Ponsonby, Mr Darling looked rattled when put on the defensive over the extent of income tax powers proposed for further devolution.

He then spent almost all of his cross-examination time trying to force Mr Salmond to say what his Plan B on currency was in the event of the rest of the UK refusing to agree to a sterling zone.

The former chancellor stated: "If you leave the United Kingdom you leave the pound. What is your plan B if you don't get a currency union? This is most important."

When Mr Salmond insisted on sticking to sharing the pound as his Plan A, Mr Darling pressed him: "Any eight-year-old can tell you the flag of a country, the ­capital of a country and its currency. I presume the flag is the saltire, I assume our capital will still be Edinburgh, but you can't tell us what currency we will have. What is an eight-year-old going to make of that?"

But the First Minister insisted, to barracking from the Better Together supporters in the audience: "We will keep the pound, Alistair, because it is our pound as well as England's pound."

Mr Salmond devoted his ­cross-questioning to the "Project Fear" nature of the No campaign, highlighting scare stories such as the prospect of Scots being forced to drive on the right, the risk of attack from outer space, and claims about Europe that had been instantly rebutted.

But these lines of attack seemed frivolous on such a night and Mr Darling took strength from this and used the opportunity to turn the questioning back round on to uncertainties about terms of EU entry, saying: "I've always said yes we'll get back in, the question is the terms and conditions on which we'll get back in and how long it takes to get back in."

Mr Salmond countered that Mr Darling's allies in the No campaign wanted to take the UK out of the EU, saying: "Isn't the real uncertainty that you have a government which is having an in-out referendum on Europe and you're in bed with people who will say that they're going to vote to leave the European Union. Isn't that the risk for Scotland?"

A recurring theme from Mr Salmond was that Scots so often got UK Governments they did not vote for. "I didn't vote for your Government," quipped Mr Darling.

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