Ewan Crawford: Darling’s mixed messages hearten Yes camp
THE former chancellor backs Westminster rule yet warns that its present incumbents in government are doing us all great damage. Go figure.
Readers of The Scotsman yesterday may have noticed a remarkable transformation in a politician called Alistair Darling between pages nine and 14.
In the earlier page the former Labour Chancellor and chairman of the anti-independence Better Together campaign was celebrating an opinion poll and reminding readers of the “benefits of being part of a larger country”.
Something odd then happened over the next five pages, because by the time he re-appeared, Mr Darling seemed to be very concerned about this same large country’s prospects.
If, warned Mr Darling, the current Chancellor, George Osborne, did not change his economic policies, “immeasurable” damage would be done to the British economy.
Alarmingly, unless Mr Osborne acted “now”, it would take years to get Britain’s economy growing again and to create the jobs we needed.
Since there is absolutely no sign that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in Westminster is going to take this immediate action, the future, according to Mr Darling, does indeed look bleak: damage so severe that it can’t even be measured, low growth and high unemployment.
Even the possibility of a Labour government in a few years’ time, it seems, will not be enough to rescue the situation because the policy U-turn needs to be executed with desperate urgency.
In this, Mr Darling was just echoing his good friend, Ed Balls, the current Shadow Chancellor, who has been warning for months of the long-term damage being caused by the Westminster government.
These statements should not be taken lightly. The words have been chosen carefully to reflect the Labour leadership’s view of the scale of the mistakes that are currently being made. Yet at the same time Labour is saying to people in Scotland that Westminster control over economic, tax and welfare policy must be maintained at all costs, however catastrophic the administration there may be.
Regardless of this forthcoming calamity that Labour itself is predicting, to contemplate a transfer of those powers, even to a Labour government in an independent Scotland, would somehow be worse.
Indeed, Mr Darling is quite happy to campaign alongside the same Conservative leaders he denounces for leading Scotland and the rest of the UK along the road to economic disaster. This shows real intellectual dexterity.
In actual fact, in some aspects of economic policy the decisions taken by the former Chancellor do not look so different from those of his Conservative successor.
Writing in May, Nick Pearce, the head of policy in 10 Downing Street during the time the No campaign supremo was next door at Number 11, said the axe had fallen hardest on capital spending in the last year, “which is why construction output has fallen, taking us back into recession in the first quarter of this year. Capital spending has the highest multiplier effect on output, which is why cutting it has a big impact during periods of recession or weak growth. That cut, by the way, was a decision of the last Labour government which the coalition inherited.”
These rather confusing arguments over the economy form the backdrop to the No campaign’s onslaught against independence. The other major theme that has emerged has been the close social bond between people in Scotland and the rest of the UK, as highlighted by the Olympics.
Having previously worked and lived in London and East Anglia for a number of years, I agree with that sentiment. But for the No campaign, the emphasis on this aspect seems to throw up a further weakness. We are told that negotiations following a Yes vote in the independence referendum would be difficult. But it seems hard to work out exactly why anyone on either side of the border would want to cause difficulties when these social links are so strong.
Are we really to believe that the closeness apparent over the summer is so skin-deep that people in the rest of the UK would react badly simply because of a political choice to transfer power from London to Scotland?
I, for one, have more faith than the No campaign in the strength of our relationships.
It is the shallowness of the arguments mounted against independence over the summer that should give those of us who favour change reasons to be cheerful.
And yet, there is no getting away from the fact that a majority of Scots do not currently favour independence. Given that the achievement of an independent Scotland is the purpose of the forthcoming referendum, this does seem to be a bit, well, problematic.
The poll findings clearly tell us that not enough people are convinced of the economic benefits of independence. This is going to be the key issue for many people as they make up their minds over the next two years. In this respect, if p14 Mr Darling is correct, then he may have caused some problems for p9 Mr Darling.
Telling people that their economic prospects are poor, whichever party is in power at Westminster, surely at the very least opens the door for a discussion of the alternative. It will be the ability of the Yes campaign to take advantage of this opportunity that may determine the outcome of the referendum.
Given its record of competence in government, the SNP, through Finance Secretary John Swinney and his colleagues, will already have earned a hearing on the main arguments. The Yes campaign is also promising what it says will be an engaging new format for taking the economic case to the business community.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the SNP’s rise to government was accompanied by an innovative business and economics approach championed by ex-government minister, Jim Mather.
The task for the Yes campaign is more challenging, but their job may just have been made a little easier by the rhetoric of their opponents.
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