26 August 2014

Maximum Eck

The initial insight was my father's: Alistair Darling was a problematic pick to head up Better Together. On the one hand, he could make certain authority claims in key areas of the referendum campaign. He was chancellor of the exchequer under the last Labour government which Scots overwhelmingly backed in 2010. Whatever your view of him, Darling is clearly a man with some nerve, having endured the banking collapse without ending up a gibbering, brandy-soaked wreck. He has a reputation as a no-nonsense details man - and the No campaign was always likely to be attracted to the persona of the grouchy actuary, pouring icy cold water over the excessively optimistic claims of the separatists. His character, in some sense, has set the tone of the No campaign. 

But sometimes, what you eat also kills you. Most swords come two-edged. In Darling's case, the source of his authority is also potentially hobbling. He's a man with baggage, with history, and his interventions in the referendum debate could never be entirely separated from his own political history, choices and failings. And critically, Darling was also a backward looking pick for the No campaign. Which brings us back to my father's hunch, which I think drove Salmond's demolition of Darling on telly last night. Today, Alistair Darling is a man without political initiative. Like Gordon Brown, he's not quite an "ex politician," but he's on the cusp: an old, not particularly happy warrior. He has no power to make anything happen, no authority to commit anyone to anything, no promise that he can really honour. 

He is a backbench Labour MP, but he doesn't even speak definitively for his own party, on future devolution, welfare policy or anything else. On greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, at least David Cameron could have taking to his pins and told the assembled crowd in Kelvingrove, "I am the Prime Minister of this country. If I am returned to Downing Street at the next General Election, I will make it so." Believe him or not, he's in a position to honour that commitment. But Darling? Words are wind, as they say, and when you play the game of thrones, you win or you put your Barnett consequentials in jeopardy. 

Even Ed might have made a better fist of it, offering sober reassurances to wavering voters that Labour will come up trumps with greater autonomy for Scottish institutions in key policy areas of taxation and social security. Darling? All he can say is, "other folk have plans, which I happen to agree with, and I trust that they'll bring them to fruition in the fullness of time." It isn't exactly persuasive, is it? But it is the consequence of Darling's lack of political initiative, his lack of political clout after the referendum is through.

Dishing out a drubbing on currency, that he's good for, but shift him onto the future, shift him from the abstraction of the Union as he'd like to see it, to the really existing Union we all experience, and he is reduced to a nervous, inarticulate, jabby and crabbit figure. One of the things which Salmond did tremendously well yesterday was always tacking back, from the specifics towards a wider theme of political principle, aspiration, or what have you. Darling, by contrast, found himself waylaid in the thicket of detail, with little in the way or connecting lyricism about the good of the Union.

As a reluctant nationalist, in some senses, I found it a little sad to see. There is, to my mind, a positive case for the Union to be made and significant emotional resources with which to make the case sing. But instead, a nervy Darling stuck to point scoring which only underscored his own redundancy. You can sympathise with his predicament. The Better Together parties don't even agree between themselves about how we are better together. For a Labour politician, conscious of the polling showing your supporters wobbling towards independence, finding yourself as the de facto spokesman for the Westminster government must be deuced awkward - not least as your UK party colleagues are upping the ante and sticking the boot in in anticipation of the spring's general election. 

Darling did it with no style or heart whatever. Some elements of the press - particularly today's ludicrous Scottish Daily Mail - are writing the debate up as a torrid turn-off. Certainly, the cross-examination section wasn't pretty or much illuminating. But what is the proper response to the poverty of children, the impoverishment of the already marginalised, robbing the disabled of the material conditions for a rich, fully human life? Managerial sangfroid? Complex problems require complex solutions, doubtless, but before plunging headlong into technocracy, I think folk want to see a flash of fire, for a visible sense of injustice to be expressed. Darling was utterly bereft of that pepper yesterday. 

A few other random observations. Firstly, Salmond's remarks on the NHS were notably circumspect, rowing some way in from the position of Yes campaign outriders about the risks to the health service arising from leaving control of finances at Westminster. His argument wasn't that we're doomed to privatise the NHS if folk vote no, but that decision-making on the public finances in London have an impact on the Scottish budget and the Scottish Parliament's capacity to maintain key policy areas, putting the pinch elsewhere. 

This is an irrefutable fact, a feature of the devolution settlement, and well within the ken of the public to understand. If you're paid £10 an hour, you can afford to spend £6 on a packet of cigarettes, but if your wages are squeezed to just £8, you can still buy the fags, but your nicotine habit cannot but feel the squeeze. This was canny, as Darling had clearly been briefed and prepared for Salmond taking a maximalist position on the issue. He didn't, and Darling was left boxing the air.

Secondly, people are harsh judges when it comes to public speaking. Most folk would dread appearing on the Kelvingrove stage themselves, but if you cock up, sympathy all too easily evaporates. By scooching in the currency issue in early in the debate, on his own terms, Salmond anticipated Darling's questions, and didn't let the former chancellor box him in with the issue, despite his best attempts to do so. Darling's performance recalled Johann Lamont, reading from a pre-prepared script at First Minister's Questions: no nimbleness, no confident lightness of touch, no sprezzatura. Asked and answered, and your next question caller? In an already weak performance, it looked and sounded weak. In the preferred terminology of the campaign, where was Darling's plan B for the debate

It seems he didn't have one: an understandable ploy from the No campaign's point of view, but a cock up. You can see the logic. Currency worked for us last time. We've got the greased octopus on the hook at last. Let's keep him spiked there, let's reel him in. But there must be more to the case against independence than anxiety about the future of the pound. The savvier move, to my mind, would have been to bank the currency issue, perhaps gesturing towards it lightly, confident that it set back the Yes campaign a week or so in strategic terms, and bounce on to your next anti-independence theme. 

Nobody wants to hear the faded rocker in the karaoke bar, havering out his greatest hits, and it is curious that the No campaign's strategists seem to have given this little thought. On the other hand, it is consistent with a recurring feature of their campaign. Just as they have, too often, lost their sense of discrimination in promoting negative stories about independence, Better Together has also tended to overplay their momentary advantages, blunting their overall force. The perils of that immodesty were powerfully expressed in Kelvingrove last night. 

By contrast, that ice-bucket over the napper seemed to have done Alex Salmond much good. There were better and worse moments, inevitably, and more and less convincing arguments, but he was on form, pointed, to the point, human, angry about the right things, lyrical about the instrumental case for Scottish independence, and crystal clear about the challenges which staying in the Union will bring. After a sometimes ill-judged and off-key performance earlier this month, last night we got the Maximum Eck, making the case for independence as it ought to be made, dragging Darling onto our terrain, and showing up the hollow toom tabardism of the No campaign. 


  1. For those waiting (100 + years)on a a Federal Union,saw their dream disintegrate in 5 mins,as Darling failed to name one new power.

  2. "Just as they have, too often, lost their sense of discrimination in promoting negative stories about independence, Better Together has also tended to overplay their momentary advantages, blunting their overall force."

    That'll be what happens when you put people with a track record of failure in key positions!

  3. I almost said "a sad collection of individuals" as regards UKok, but of course they are not individuals, but are playing to their corporate mindset. Don't raid my bank account, don't take my prestige and stature away from me, don't take your own future into your own hands, because I will not feature in it, so will not benefit.

  4. It's never been clear to me why the Union needs a lobbying group or a presidential-style candidate. Once you've accepted the existence of Better Together then inevitably there are sponsors who are all rather sinister and the presidential candidate will inevitably face questions about his gaffs or lacklustre performance. If somebody is sitting on the sofa expecting Darling (or Salmond for that matter) to represent or somehow encapsulate their national destiny then they really have turned on, tuned in, and dropped out.

  5. Reasonable points, but I still think Darling was the least bad figurehead available for Better Together. Sending an Englishman like Miliband to lecture Scots about how they should stay in the Union would be totally counterproductive. If you want an up-and-coming Scottish unionist politician with real influence over policy, probably the best choice would be Douglas Alexander, but I really don't think he has the experience or gravitas to face off against Salmond.