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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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.