Alistair Darling: “Salmond is behaving like Kim Jong-il”

With just 100 days to save the Union, Alistair Darling fights back.

Montage by Dan Murrell

Alistair Darling is pacing restlessly in a meeting room when I arrive, late for our appointment, at Savoy House, the headquarters of the Better Together campaign in Glasgow. “This is the ugliest building in the city,” the taxi driver had said as he dropped me on a cold, overcast afternoon outside the grim shopping and office complex in Sauchiehall Street. It seems odd, to me at least, that the campaign to save the 307-year-old Union of Great Britain is being fought from such an unprepossessing building, and, more alarming still, in such straitened circumstances.

The Better Together campaign has received more than 30,000 individual donations but still there is a sense of the campaign being underfunded and rather shambolic. Nor is there the groundswell of opinion, certainly outside Scotland, in support of what is the most successful multinational partnership in modern history. At best, there is widespread indifference or complacency. “It just won’t happen,” I’ve been told repeatedly by MPs at Westminster. Or, an alternative view: “Would it make much difference if Scots voted for independence?”

Nor have there been any significant policy initiatives from the Labour Party offering a pathway towards a reinvigorated, reconfigured, post-referendum Union. Concessions and more devolution are being offered to Scotland but there is no significant agitation for either an English parliament or the creation of a more federal United Kingdom. All of which is to be regretted, because the end of the Union would represent, as Simon Schama has written, “a moment of incredulous sorrow at the loss of our common home, a catastrophe that somehow came about in our political sleep”.

Indeed, so deep is our constitutional crisis that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom feels uncomfortable about visiting Scotland to make the case for the continuation of Great Britain. He should be doing this in the way that Alex Salmond is taking his argument to England, delivering the New Statesman Lecture in London in March, making a speech in Carlisle on St George’s Day and, just in the past few days, writing in the London Evening Standard. David Cameron should have been embarking on what could have been, in different circumstances, a kind of modern-day Midlothian campaign. But he does not because he cannot, for fear of further alienating Scots – that’s how bad things are.

Instead, because his party has been so decisively defeated in Scotland and is so lacking in confidence, Cameron, a sincere British patriot, is forced to keep a regretful silence or restricted to issuing plaintive pleas from afar for the Scots not to go, as he did in February in a speech delivered in the echoing emptiness of the former Olympic velodrome in east London. The speech was received with derision by many Scots.

In the 2010 general election the Tories won one out of 59 seats in Scotland; in the 1997 election, the last before devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament, they won none of the 72 seats. The Conservatives can speak to and for England but their voice is weak, and becoming ever weaker, in Scotland, where on 2 June the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, called for income tax to be devolved to Holyrood. This is all much too late for the party that opposed devolution and imposed the poll tax on Scotland a year before it was introduced in the rest of the country. “No one has done more for Scottish independence than Margaret Thatcher,” Charles Kennedy once quipped.

****

The scruffy offices of Better Together resemble nothing so much as the secretariat of a red-brick student union, with Darling as a kind of wise, grey-haired elder, or perpetual mature student, presiding over affairs yet still dressed as if ready for work at the Treasury in London. There are many young people in the offices – some of them volunteers – bustling around and apparently eager to hurry Darling along to his next appointment, which just happens to be an office leaving party. A few plates of unappetising sandwiches are laid out on a table.

Meanwhile, little more than an hour away, the First Minister of Scotland, the ultimate gradualist, schemes to break up the British state from the grand setting of Bute House in Edinburgh’s magnificent 18th-century New Town. Salmond is supported by a large and first-rate team of special advisers and civil servants, and is buoyed by the knowledge that the campaign for independence is being bankrolled by a zealous married couple from Ayrshire who won a £161m EuroMillions lottery jackpot. Salmond knows, too, that whatever the result in September, he will win, because further devolution is coming to Scotland, including greater fiscal autonomy, and the momentum behind independence is such that even if Scots say No, there will be another referendum within the next 15 to 20 years, if not earlier. It’s a case, for him and the SNP, of if not now, soon.

For Darling, a “good result in September is one that puts the matter [of independence] to bed for a generation”. I push him to elaborate on what a good result would be – less than 40 per cent voting Yes?

“I’ll tell you when I see it. What you want people to say is we’ve had our referendum and we’ve made our decision. We need a good turnout . . .”

He pauses and leans forward in his chair, his voice quickening. “We are entering the final 100 days now, the home stretch. The challenge is to engage the people who are yet to decide how they are going to vote. It’s becoming clear that more people will pay attention to what non-politicians are saying – when David Bowie intervened [to urge Scots to vote No] that was talked about more than anything that any of the political participants have said in the last two years.

“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.”

Darling’s performance as the leader of the No campaign has been the cause of much anxiety in Westminster. He has been briefed against. Both in Scotland and at Westminster, he has been accused of leading a campaign that is “too negative” and “too technocratic”. There were reports that his job at Better Together would be given to the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, and that even if this did not happen, Alexander would become the puppet master, manipulating his strings from London. Darling dismisses all of this cheerily enough.

“As for Douglas Alexander, look, I’m here,” he says, sipping water from a plastic cup. “Heaven knows where that came from. He works with us and has done for months. But so have [the Labour MPs] Frank Roy and Jim Murphy.

“I agreed to set up Better Together as a separate legal company. No one can tell us what to do. We have complete autonomy from political parties. I set the thing up because it seemed to me that without this campaign we were going to struggle.”

What most concerns Darling is that people in Scotland are losing interest in the debate or switching off altogether. “This is a campaign that’s been running now for two years,” he says, sounding for the first time a little weary. “Even in America they don’t spend two years electing the president of the United States. Now, here, the public are saying, ‘We don’t want to hear any more of this.’ Those who have made up their mind are becoming firmer and firmer. As for those who have not made up their mind, they are being turned off. Both sides did a cinema advert recently but by popular demand the cinemas said, ‘We don’t want any more of this.’

Darling speaks quickly and is as energised as I’ve ever seen him. Today he is very much preoccupied with the rhetoric and positioning of Alex Salmond and the whole style and tone of campaigning by the SNP, which he finds repellent. 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 ask if he, too, has felt threatened or menaced. “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.”

When I interviewed Salmond last year and then again when the First Minister gave his New Statesman Lecture, he defined his vision of Scottish nationalism as essentially benign: plural, inclusive and as liberating for England as it would be for Scotland. He reaffirmed his support for a cultural union between the nations of these islands and resisted any notion that he wished to make foreigners of the English, Welsh and Northern Irish. Scotland, he said, conscious that he was speaking to the NS, would be a “progressive beacon” for all those who yearn for a fairer society.

Darling is not convinced. He was, for one thing, appalled by Salmond’s response to the unexpected Ukip surge in Scotland, where the party gained its first MEP in the European elections, one of six there. “Did you see him?” he asks. “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.”

Darling insists that the SNP is not a national movement: “It 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."

I suggest to him that Salmond has successfully redfined the SNP as representing a civic nationalism.

“Which it isn’t,” Darling says.

But, I insist, that's what he says it is. Why do you say it isn't? What is it? Blood and soil nationalism?

“At heart. . . 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.

“As for the SNP being a progressive force, this is the same Scottish government that has cut over 100,000 college places, which mostly went to people on low incomes. If you look at the local government cuts they’ve made, it’s people on low incomes who suffered for it. The only redistributive measure in the white paper was to cut corporation tax. Salmond has marketed their enterprise as being something more civic-minded, if you like. But what holds them together is that they define themselves by identity. Their argument is that Scotland is better and more broad-minded than their brothers and sisters south of the border – until Ukip won a seat in Scotland in the European elections.”

For Darling, the case for the Union is both emotional and pragmatic. “We are accused of being too negative or too technical whenever we ask questions such as, ‘How much North Sea oil is there left?’ . . . The euro here is as popular as it is in Billericay. [After independence] he would be forced to introduce a Scottish pound or use the pound as Panama uses the dollar but then they would have no central bank. What would this mean for the Scottish economy, for jobs? These arguments actually matter.

“If you came down from Mars and looked at both campaigns you’d say they were homing in on the same things. They cry negative. I cry, ‘I am being realistic.’

“I’m fiercely proud of being Scottish but I see the value of being part of something bigger: it gives another dimension to my life. A bigger market for jobs and the security that comes from being part of something bigger . . . part of the common culture, the common experience. You can do more in this world by being part of something bigger. Scotland is not one of the UK’s colonies.”

Darling is confident that he is winning the argument and that Salmond has the more difficult challenge, because he has to argue that everything will change (Scotland will be liberated from Westminster executive control and be free at last to fulfil its potential as a great nation) and yet nothing will change (Scotland will retain the Queen, continue to be a member of the EU, join Nato and enter into a currency union with the rest of the UK). “Yet,” Darling says, “once you begin to diverge and become independent, then everything will change.”

Would he leave the country if Scotland voted Yes?

“If we make the break in September, I’m not going anywhere: I’m staying here. But I’ll be out of it all. The negotiations will be between the UK government and Scotland.”

****

While I was in Scotland, I read a column by Joyce McMillan in the Scotsman, in which she described “feeling . . . traumatised by Scotland’s lapse of judgment in electing a Ukip MEP”. On a visit to a hospital – or, more accurately, “an NHS outpost” – in the aftermath of the European elections, she found herself “peering suspiciously at everyone in the waiting room; the guilty 140,000 Scottish Ukip voters must be somewhere, I reasoned, so why not here?”.

What was she looking for – traitors?

McMillan went on, still apparently traumatised yet giving full voice to her frustrations: “Given the mixture of scare-mongering and condescension offered by the No campaign so far . . . it becomes increasingly clear that a No vote in September may well be something of a tragedy for Scotland, carte blanche to an arrogant British establishment to continue to strip our assets, and to treat us with the contempt they will feel we have deserved.”

As McMillan sees it, Scotland has for too long been oppressed by the English, exploited, condescended to, abused, neglected. Hers is the characteristic voice of liberal disaffection in Scotland, and one hears it everywhere. A subtext to her influential Scotsman columns is a sense of assumed moral superiority: the Scots are an instinctively fairer people than the English, more socially democratic, more committed to equity. They have everything to gain by cutting the ropes that bind them to the nefarious English beast.

Yet compare McMillan, the voice of educated Scottish resentment, with the civic nationalism of Simon Schama, who writes rapturously of a multinational British state “whose glory over the centuries has been precisely that it does not correspond with some imagined romance of tribal singularity but has been made up of many peoples, languages, customs, all jumbled together within the expansive, inclusive British home”.

Which position is the more persuasive: Schama’s celebration of the non-ethnic British mosaic, or McMillan’s partnership of exploitation?

A problem for the No campaign is that it is not firing the imagination of writers and artists, those who can dream a nation into being. I cannot think of a single significant Scottish writer or historian who would rhapsodise about the British Union as Schama does. Instead, journalistic commentators such as Joyce McMillan and Pat Kane, and literary writers such as the Booker prizewinner James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Alasdair Gray, Kathleen Jamie, James Robertson (the author of And the Land Lay Still, a favourite novel of Salmond’s and something of a sacred text for nationalists), the historian Tom Devine and many others have, through essays, columns, novels, books, film scripts and poems, created a national culture that is defined against England (or more specifically against London) and perceived English hegemony.

I mention some of this to Darling and wonder at the absence of support for his campaign from literary and cultural Scotland. He says I am wrong. So, a little unfairly, I ask him if he can name a prominent Scottish writer or artist who supports the Union. There follows an awkward silence before he replies, cryptically: “There will be one,” as if he is expecting a declaration of support any time soon from someone notable – J K Rowling, perhaps?

“The nature of nationalism is that it will never go away,” Darling concedes. “But as someone living here, I’d like the political debate to be about things such as the state of our health service, about transport or our educational attainment – the things that will determine whether we are a successful country or not. For too long the political debate has been seen through the constitutional prism.”

I ask about federalism and about a putative English parliament. Surely we need to address the English question. Scottish MPs voting on English affairs, the rise of Ukip, a sense of widespread disaffection from politics and loathing of politicians, feelings of powerlessness and disenfranchisement, the forces of globalisation in London unbalancing the British economy and the housing market – this is a period of unease and transition.

“The desire for constitutional change in England is not strong,” Darling says, correctly enough. “Yes, there is a major issue between London and the rest of England. A lot of people are supporting Ukip not because of the European Union but because of immigration. This sense that people are not getting a fair crack of the whip in jobs or housing . . . If people don’t think the system is working for them and think it’s not fair, they will turn to politicians who offer simplistic and even unpleasant solutions. If you look at where Ukip was piling up the votes, it was outside London. People say, ‘The statisticians might be telling us the economy is growing but it doesn’t look like that around my way.’

Throughout our conversation Darling, I notice, can never bring himself to speak of the First Minister by name. Salmond is referred to only by the pronouns “him” or “he”. He is the Great Unnameable but his presence is oppressive.

“He wants to turn it into a contest between Scotland and England,” Darling says at one point, “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.”

Better Together has a risk register that it uses to calculate threats as well as opportunities. The England football team performing well at the World Cup in Brazil, with all the attendant jingoism that would follow south of the border, and then the possibility of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games generating a surge of patriotic fellow-feeling among Scots, as happened during the London 2012 Olympics, are not considered to be risks. Darling is more troubled by voter apathy and a possible destabilising black swan event, for which, by definition, he could never prepare.

“If England do well it will make no difference whatsoever,” he says. “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 . . .”

Before we part, I ask him what he plans to do after the referendum in September.

“I’ve got to decide whether to stand again as an MP in 2015.”

What about another tilt at serving in government?

“I’ve got to complete this campaign first,” he says. “But with the euphoria of winning you might think, ‘Bring on the next campaign.’ ” He smiles.

Would he like to be chancellor again?

“I’ve been chancellor.”

Foreign secretary?

“I don’t like sherry.” 

This report first appeared in the print edition of the New Statesman dated 13 June 2014. The original report wrongly attributed comments about “blood-and-soil nationalism” directly to Alistair Darling; this has since been corrected.