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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle