In an interview with the New Statesman, Alistair Darling compares Alex Salmond's behaviour to that of Kim Jong-il. Montage by Dan Murrell
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Alistair Darling interview: “Salmond is behaving like Kim Jong-il”

In this week’s cover story, New Statesman editor Jason Cowley interviews Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, Labour MP and former chancellor. Darling is fighting back, with one hundred days to save the Union of Great Britain.

 

Clarification, 22.36: Owing to a transcription error, Alistair Darling was incorrectly quoted using the words "blood and soil nationalism" to describe the SNP's "non-civic nationalism". The phrase was raised in conversation but not used directly by Mr Darling. This is the disputed exchange:

 
NS: Salmond has successfully redefined the SNP as [representing] a civic nationalism . . .
 
Darling: Which it isn't . . .
 
NS: But that's what he says it is. Why do you say it isn't? What is it? Blood and soil nationalism?
 
Darling: At heart . . . [inaudible mumble] If you ask any nationalist, ‘Are there any circumstances in which you would not vote to be independent?’ they would say the answer has got to be no. It is about how people define themselves through their national identity.
 

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In the midst of a constitutional crisis so deep that the prime minister feels uncomfortable about visiting Scotland to make the case for the Union of Great Britain, it's crunch-time for the Better Together campaign. Its leader, Alistair Darling, certainly seems to be fighting back in an interview with New Statesman editor Jason Cowley in this week's magazine. Darling decries Scotland's first minister Alex Salmond's "North Korean response" to Scottish Ukip voters, challenges him to a debate, and laments the "culture of intimidation" among Scottish nationalists.

Alex Salmond's behaving like former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il

He said on the BBC that people voted Ukip in Scotland because English TV was being beamed into Scotland. This was a North Korean response. This is something that Kim Jong-il would say. And this is the same BBC for which we all pay our licence fee, and we all enjoy the national output as well as the Scottish output.

On a culture of intimidation and the menace of cybernats

Darling speaks of a “culture of intimidation” and the menace of the “cybernats”, a swarm of co-ordinated online commenters who traduce anyone with whom they disagree. 

When I started doing this two years ago I didn’t believe you’d be in a situation in a country like ours where people would be threatened for saying the wrong thing,” Darling says. “Business people keep telling me that it is happening as a matter of fact. They say to me, ‘We’d like to come out and support you but . . .’ It’s not just the cybernats and what they do and the things they call our supporters. People in business are frightened to speak out. I was speaking to a senior academic who told me that he’d been warned by a senior Scottish nationalist that if he carried on speaking like this, it would be a pity for him. It’s a real, real problem for us. We ought to be able to express our views without fear of the consequences.

I haven’t been threatened – they wouldn’t threaten me – but if you are a member of the public and you are trashed for having your say, what do you do? You stop it. No one wants to live in a country where this sort of thing goes on. A culture has been allowed to develop here. This is not a modern civic Scotland.

Challenging Alex Salmond to a debate

He wants to turn it into a contest between Scotland and England, which is why he wants a televised debate with David Cameron. That should not happen. I want to debate him. I’m ready to. But he’s refusing to enter into discussions with the television companies – STV, the BBC, Sky and Channel 4. It’s all being cut very fine. It’s not too late. I challenge him to a debate.

The Scottish referendum will be unlike any other vote

This is a vote that’s not like a normal general election. This is something the nationalists have to win only once, by one vote. It is irrevocable. You would never come back. If you did come back you’d be coming back in a completely unfavourable negotiating position. It wouldn’t happen.

Fear of a black swan event

While Darling isn't concerned about any jingoism following the England football team performing well in the World Cup, or patriotic feeling swelling from the Glasgow Commonwealth Games this year, he does fear the unknown.

If England do well it will make no difference whatsoever. The Commonwealth Games will be a great event for Glasgow and for Scotland but it won’t determine how people vote. It won’t decide the outcome of the referendum. I’ve got no concern about those events any more than I have about the Bannockburn celebrations; most people think, umm, that was 700 years ago.

But what worry you are the unknowns. Something could happen...

The SNP is not a nationalist movement

It [the SNP] is a national party. Scotland is not a colony, it never has been. . . when it came to colonialism, Scotland was up there with the rest of them. The SNP does not offer a civic nationalism . . . If you ask any nationalist, ‘Are there any circumstances in which you would not vote to be independent?’ they would say the answer has got to be no. It is about how people define themselves through their national identity.


Jason Cowley interviewed Alex Salmond last year, who in a wide-ranging interview criticised Ed Miliband's leadership, among other things:

I’d agree with the polls that he’s lagging some way behind his party. What’s Labour’s central problem? People still blame them for the financial situation in the country. That’s essential. It’s the ‘blame for the economic crisis, stupid’ argument... He can’t forswear the past when he has the past sitting next to him.

Salmond also gave a New Statesman lecture in March 2014 entitled “Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands”. Watch highlights here.

Update: The SNP has now called on Darling to apologise for his comparison of Alex Salmond to Kim Jong-il. A spokesperson for Salmond said:

“Alistair Darling demeans himself and his colleagues in the No campaign with these pathetic, puerile remarks for which he should now apologise.

“The debate on Scotland’s future is one that deserves far, far better than boorish and abusive personal insults, as do the people of Scotland.

“Mr Darling has called for a positive debate free from abuse – he should now aim to live up to that pledge, and stop trying to divert attention from the real issues.”

 

To read the full interview with Alistair Darling, as well as articles by Mary Beard, John Gray, Paul Mason and Bryan Appleyard, purchase a copy of the magazine or subscribe on iPad or iPhone.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder