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Last Updated: Sunday, 29 April 2007, 22:11 GMT 23:11 UK
Epitaphs and love-ins at debate
Andrew Black
Political reporter
BBC Scotland news website

It was the final coming together of Scotland's main party leaders before the Scottish election - but was there love in the air between the sworn political enemies?

Nicol Stephen and Alex Salmond

The big four - Scottish Labour's Jack McConnell, SNP leader Alex Salmond, Annabel Goldie of the Scottish Conservatives and Scots Lib Dem boss Nicol Stephen - were placed at the mercy of a crowd of voters.

First on the agenda for the BBC Scotland leaders debate in Aberdeen University's Elphinstone Hall was the future of the Union.

First Minister Mr McConnell, whose party has used phrases such as "separation" "break-up" and "divorce" to argue against Scottish independence, pointed to the constitutional and economic instability that a referendum on that issue might cause.

Mr Salmond, perhaps mindful of those very words, portrayed independence as a "partnership of equals" with England.

Mr Stephen, whose party does not want an independence referendum, said that even a multi-option one was not a compromise he could live with.

Voter decisions

But had Miss Goldie detected something in the offing?

"Far be it from me to intrude on this love-in, but Nicol Stephen specifically refused to rule out a coalition with Alex Salmond," she stated.

And replying to a suggestion from an audience member that a vote for the Lib Dems could save the Union, the Conservative head matron stated: "Frankly, I'd sooner rely on a firelighter to put out a conflagration."

For the record, Mr Stephen pointed out that there was no love-in.

The question of whether issues reserved to Westminster would impact on voter decisions reared its head - along with the inevitable Iraq War.

Here was one issue at least where the leaders spoke with more of a united voice.

Mr McConnell said that, whatever reserved elements were in people's heads in the run-up to the poll, the public was increasingly thinking of the future of the Scottish Parliament.

Elphinstone Hall
Aberdeen University's Elphinstone Hall was the debate venue

Miss Goldie said of the question: "You can't help it."

"People will" was Mr Stephen's response, and on the issues like the Iraq War, Mr Salmond offered: "You cannot reserve your conscience."

And if it all went horribly wrong for any of the four after the Holyrood election, what would be their political epitaph?

"I tried and tried and tried and I don't expect to suffer defeat," Miss Goldie said.

When asked if she may want to become the parliament's next presiding officer she countered, in her best west Scots dialect: "Absolutely not."

When his time came, Mr Stephen said his would go something like: "He did some exciting things, he did some interesting things, he really tried to make a difference."

"If we don't win on Thursday it will be 'I almost made it', and if we do win, 'we finally, finally managed to do it'", was Mr Salmond's reply.

Mr McConnell's final thought: "Whenever I finally am no longer first minister of Scotland I would hope of one thing and that is that people think that I did more for young people as first minister than I could have ever have done as a classroom teacher."

But would people also remember him for "that kilt"?

"I hope not," came the reply.

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