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.

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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