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Wallace and MacAskill contest Society referendum debate

7 August 2014

Another debate between leading figures on each side of the independence debate took place last night, this time in the charge of the Law Society of Scotland.

An audience of nearly 200, mostly from the legal profession, heard Advocate General for Scotland (and former Deputy First Minister) Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill, make statements and then take questions from the floor for the bulk of the 90-minute session, held at Glasgow Caledonian University and chaired by former Society President Austin Lafferty.

While there were at times lively exchanges between the two speakers, there was none of the antagonism demonstrated in the previous night's televised debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling.

Nevertheless, questions continued to focus on the pound and the Scottish Government's plans, if any, should a currency union be refused. Mr MacAskill insisted that currency would happen, as in the best interests of both Scotland and the continuing UK, and that Scotland would not otherwise accept a share of the UK's national debt. Lord Wallace compared the idea to a partner wanting to leave a firm but continue using the same bank account, and asked whether it was really in Scotland's interests to cede such important economic levers. Nor would walking away from UK debts stand it in good stead internationally.

The two also clashed over the prospects for further devolution in the event of a No vote, with Lord Wallace pointing to the tone of the Scotland Act 1998 in devolving anything that was not specifically reserved, and the successive further transfers of power that had taken place since, as evidence of the Unionist parties' good faith. However, rather than commit to specific proposals, he said that further devolution would come "from the bottom up", involving civic society in its formulation. Mr MacAskill predicted that the example of 1979 would be repeated, when Lord Home urged a No vote to the 1978 Scotland Act on the promise of a better scheme, but the Thatcher Government ignored the subject. He argued that London politicians would have no further interest in Scotland following a No vote.

Other topics covered included Scotland's future in the Europen Union – when and on what terms membership would be likely to happen – the respective Scottish and UK Government budgets and spending plans, and the type of Government that Scotland might have if independent. On the last point, Mr MacAskill predicted that the Conservatives would have no influence and Trident missiles would go, whereas Lord Wallace pointed out that Labour and the Conservatives between them had produced a majority at Holyrood in support of the Iraq war in 2003, and for the continuation of Trident in 2006, and said it was dangerous to attempt to predict future political swings.

A question on what would persuade a lawyer to vote Yes of No, given the trend of legal aid cuts and court closures, produced further responses on budget priorities and the hard choices that had had to be made at both levels of government. As Lord Wallace put it, the nature of politics is the choices you make, whether in good times or bad, and the values you are acting on.

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