Pegging electoral success to the economy is a risky business - as Alex Salmond is finding out

The emotive, victory-clutching style of the Yes campaign is at risk of floundering before the cool, hard realities presented by the UK Treasury.

The last time I had dinner with Alistair Darling was in 1997. Sitting next to him, I suggested that tying your electoral fortunes to the economic cycle was foolish: better to make the Bank of England independent and set targets to deliver the revenue to be spent on ideological grounds. “Oh no”, Darling replied, “We’ve been out of power for thirteen years – we aren’t going to give that up so easily”. Four weeks later, and for the only reason they had planned it all along, the New Labour administration under Tony Blair made the Bank of England independent and inflation targeting followed.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the “Better Together” dinner with the same Alistair Darling in London last week. Darling has been through the wringer since 1997, having been handed the poison chalice: sorting out the mess left by Gordon Brown in the wake of 2008, while simultaneously having to fend off attacks from his own side, who favoured Ed Balls for Chancellor at the time. Amazingly, Darling, to his credit, has come through the experience without becoming bitter. It is an object lesson in self-preservation – don’t let others in and you will be the stronger for it.

So taking on the task of putting the case against Scottish Independence comes as a sign of energy, and a desire to remain relevant. At the dinner, Darling said little that he hadn’t already said in public – no Chatham House rules need breaking here. But it was good to hear it from his own lips:

  • The polls show an almost constant 30 per cent of Scotland in favour of independence, but 25 per cent of the population remain undecided.
  • The SNP has a war chest of £7m to fight their campaign, while “Better Together” has managed to scrape together £2.5m.
  • The SNP under Alex Salmond has a vice-like grip on the media in Scotland, where no opposition is tolerated and all “victories” are hyperbolically spun.

The “Better Together” campaign has had to confine itself to largely technical issues based on economic factors many of which fly over the heads of all but the most dedicated economics geeks. This makes it difficult to connect territory that Salmond, who refuses to debate with Darling, and the SNP have monopolised: the emotional level. It almost characterises the two men: Salmond the firebrand ideologist, all rhetorical claymore and political intelligence, versus Darling, the cool-headed technician who appeals to the mind. In a world where the phrase “The personal is political” has been raised to the level of a mantra, the emotional will always win.

But there are a number of tricks being missed here. The dinner coincided with Alex Salmond’s triumphal declaration of victory over the UK Treasury – they “blinked first” as he put it – when it announced that a devolved UK would stand by its existing debts. It is Salmond’s aggression and quickness to claim even the most minor victory that is his Achilles' heel. The gap between the evidence and reality increasingly makes Scotland look like a Celtic dictatorship, because, arguably, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander laid an economic trap that Salmond happily walked into.

When it comes to assuming part of the UK’s interest payments the only thing that a devolved Scotland can now do if negotiations about what “fair and proportional” means break down, is walk away. They already have form in being unable to reach any amicable compromise with Westminster - so it is not inconceivable. In that case, nobody will lend Scotland a penny to fund its commitments, except at a punitive rate and with the status of an Emerging Market.

Equally, Salmond’s flip-flopping on the newly independent Scotland’s currency is a red herring. Whether Scotland adopts the UK pound or not it should be made clear it matters nothing to the UK. In the same way that Hong Kong, Singapore and a swathe of Latin American nations peg themselves to the fortunes of the United States and follow their interest rate cycle, the Federal Open Market Committee sets interest rates with reference to its domestic economy. A devolved UK would be no different. “No change there then”, some might say. But in a broken Union it is conceivable the Bank of England will pursue an interest rate policy which is exactly contrary to the economic needs of a new Scotland.

Finally, neither the “Better Together” campaign, nor for that matter, the SNP have ever really answered the question of why Independence needs to happen. There are a series of “wants” on display, mainly those who want a place in history or increased political power for themselves, but need? That is yet to be demonstrated. The Scottish Assembly already has control of health, education, law and order and child care. Scottish independence will change nothing in those areas. It also has its own tax-raising powers – taxes that can be spent exclusively on Scottish priorities – but it has never used them. Scotland already has democracy in abundance – local, national, UK and European representation. How much more democracy and say in its own matters can Scotland conceivably need or tolerate? What is the need that Scottish Independence satisfies?

There is both hope and despair for Darling and the “Better Together” campaign: hope that the polls will hold and despair, like in the Canadian experience when there was a never-explained last minute 10 per cent surge in support for Québécois independence, that things could swing disastrously the other way. One thing is for sure: if there isn’t a decisive rejection of independence this time, the SNP will be back again in five years' time.

Johann Lamont, Alistair Darling, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie at the launch of the "Better Together" campaign in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.