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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue