Show Hide image

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.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

Show Hide image

Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

0800 7318496