THE previous year he’d been at the lectern, but, when Alistair Darling attended the Mansion House in London for the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s annual speech on the state of the economy in June 2010, he was just another audience member.
In attendance were some of the sharpest elbowed senior bankers in the country. As chancellor, Darling had challenged them with a 50p top rate of tax and a grab from their bonuses. Now he was joining them to hear George Osborne, his Tory replacement, outline a fresh vision on where Britain was and where it was going.
But before they settled to listen to the guest speaker, the audience had a point to make to the man who had recently left the Treasury. This they did with a rapturous round of applause.
It was a remarkable reaction to a man who’d gone after bankers as the credit crunch hit. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that I was reminded of that story by a prominent Scottish Nationalist, whose view that Darling was an excellent chancellor is not uncommon among his political adversaries.
Darling – leader of the cross-party but Labour-dominated Better Together campaign against the break-up of the United Kingdom – has begun a rather depressingly branded “listening tour” of Scotland. And he does so as one of the few members of the last Labour government to have the confidence of voters. What’s more, he has the respect of the SNP leadership. He’s smart, they say. He’s worthy.
But is Darling the man to put an end to First Minister Alex Salmond’s dream of an independent Scotland?
Were we facing a short – four to six week, say – campaign then, almost certainly, yes. If Better Together needed nothing more than a serious figure to quickly cast doubt on the SNP’s plans, then Darling is the perfect candidate. But sustaining a campaign that will run until next year might prove more difficult for the cautious MP.
Darling is against doing much more than attacking the Nationalists’ plans. He is in no mind to paint a picture of a different Scotland after a No vote. His view is that you don’t discuss changes to the club rules until you decide whether or not you plan to remain a member.
On the face of it, this is perfectly logical – he is, after all, arguing in favour of the status quo. But it’s a complacent approach. Will a simple argument in favour of business as usual, with its narrative of cuts and recession, really be enough?
Better Together campaigners insist that, for the time being, yes. Voters, they say, accept that independence is a purely Nationalist proposition and it’s for those who want to break up the UK to give answers to whatever questions the possibility throws up.
So, for now, there will be no vision of a post-referendum Scotland from Darling. It may seem negative, say members of the No team, but he’s right to use his status as a trusted politician to cast doubt on Salmond’s proposals. Darling’s is the steady hand ready to still Salmond’s loose cannon, they say.
This is a scenario already envisaged by the SNP, where sources admit some concerns that the First Minister’s reputation for statesmanship has taken a knock after some bruising rows over his integrity in the last Holyrood session.
But the battle playing out as hoped by Better Together assumes, on their part, a great deal – not least that Darling, for all his high profile and years of experience, will be able to define the debate on his own terms. The SNP – and, for the different reasons, the UK media – will point to Prime Minister David Cameron as the leader of the No campaign. The Nationalists will carve Darling out by attacking the Tories directly. National media will carve him out by turning to the PM as elected leader of the Union for answers.
A greater problem comes with a warning from within Scottish Labour’s ranks: If the party doesn’t use the 2014 referendum as the prism through which to discuss its vision for Scotland, then the chance of success at the 2016 Holyrood election seems slender.
This is a headache for Darling, his party, and the Lib Dems and Tories who have ceded to him authority in the Better Together campaign. One Labour MSP insisted to me that the party’s next Holyrood election was “dependent” on the party using 2014 to talk about “a better Scotland”.
I believe this is absolutely true. But how does Labour do that when its most senior figure in the No camp is absolutely opposed to the idea? These is a tension here, clearly. Labour MSPs – worried about keeping their seats in 2016 – will not adhere to Darling’s wishes that the debate remains about club membership rather than rules. The survival instinct will kick in. Similarly, Tory and Lib Dem MSPs will want to make their own distinctive cases for the future in 2014.
Darling should address this now. He may want to avoid the vision thing, but that’s an impossibility. He and Better Together – all of the parties involved – must create an attractive home in which the No vote will enthusiastically settle.
Regardless of the result, interested Scots will surely want the outcome of the referendum to have some positives. For Darling that means creating an option that not only satisfies the unionist vote, but brings along as much as possible those who may have voted Yes.
On paper, Alistair Darling’s role may simply be to argue down the case for an independent Scotland. In reality, by putting himself forward as the Better Together leader, he has to do much more.
He has to satisfy those in his party – and others – who believe in greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. More importantly, he has to – whether he likes it or not – create a vision for Scotland that can provide a starting point for a country that stands to be terribly divided in 2014, regardless of the referendum result. «