Alistair Darling: UK forged over three centuries
ON THE morning of 7 October 2008 the then chairman of Royal Bank of Scotland called to tell me that his bank would run out of money that afternoon. He asked me what I was going to do about it.
The markets were panicking. RBS shares were in freefall. We were on the brink of a global banking collapse.
If RBS closed its doors the cash machines would close down. Panic would have spread like wildfire to banks across the world.
So that October morning, as Chancellor, I had no choice but to bail out RBS, to do whatever it took to stop an economic catastrophe. It wasn’t an easy decision. RBS, one of the largest banks in the world, was about the same size as the UK’s national income.
Gordon Brown and I knew we had to do what was needed, but we were only able to do so because of the financial strength of the UK.
When, later that day, we asked the US Federal Reserve to carry on supporting RBS they never doubted our credit. They did it because they knew that we were strong enough to deal with the banking crisis.
There is another factor, too. We were able to avert catastrophe without asking permission from anyone else to do so.
That day will live with me for the rest of my life. The fact that the UK was there to stand behind a failed Scottish bank – and this was a calamity made in Edinburgh – is only one example of the strength of sharing risks.
We are part of a social union, underpinned by an economic and political union. We share opportunities as well as risks. All parts mesh together. I joined the Better Together campaign because I value our links with the other parts of the United Kingdom, through families, friendships, through trade and shared political, economic and cultural institutions.
After centuries of common endeavour, we should value the ties that bind and celebrate the diversity that exists around us. It is artificial to create separate states within our small island.
I am a proud Scot. I care deeply about the future of my country. This is my home. I want Scotland to offer generations to come the chance to shape not only our own country but to look outwards, to improve the wider world. It is what generations of Scots before us have done. Explorers, scientists, inventors, engineers – those generations have used their talents as part of the UK, as well as in Scotland.
It is not just emotion: there is a practical argument. First, and most importantly, jobs. We sell four times as much to England as we do to the rest of Europe. There are no barriers to that trade. The financial services industry sells the vast majority of its products to England. It benefits from having a single system of financial regulation and, in the case of banks, a single central bank standing behind them.
We don’t have to worry about exchanging currency. We’ve certainly avoided all the problems a Eurozone-style currency union would bring.
Other industries benefit, too. A single energy market means Scottish firms sell into England without any barrier. The renewables industry could not exist without a UK subsidy paid for through 26 million British energy bills. New North Sea oil exploration is happening because of a massive subsidy on the cost of decommissioning oil fields, paid for by UK taxpayers.
The social union allows us to share gains. It should be a source of pride that the minimum wage introduced by the last Labour government helped people not just in Glasgow or Dundee, but in Liverpool, Manchester and London. Workers across the UK share the same social protections. Why threaten that?
On pensions, here is the finest example of where we share the costs that come from an ageing population. As the secret Scottish Government report leaked last week disclosed, Scotland will hit this demographic time-bomb before England.
The assessment they tried to keep to themselves stated that this risk is currently shared by the Treasury and the Department of Work and Pensions. With independence, this burden would fall on six million Scots. No wonder that in private the Scottish Government is looking at the sustainability of Scottish pensions.
Scotland has always looked outwards. As part of the UK we have huge influence in the European Union. For 13 years I attended ministerial councils in Brussels. I can tell you, it is the big countries that call the shots. That matters to us, because we need that influence to maintain our opt-outs and rebates as well as on fishing and farming policy.
And in a world where more than seven million children under the age of five die needlessly, many from preventable diseases, we as a strong partner in the UK, can help tackle that shameful problem. That is happening in East Kilbride, at the Department for International Development.
How will it help the world’s poorest if we leave the UK, one of the world’s largest donors of aid? We are one of only five countries in the world with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. We are not passive people. We help shape the world. Some of the greatest inventions in history came from Scots whose vision saw far beyond a border.
As I said last week, there is no doubt that the process of devolving further powers will continue. But further transfer of power, whether from Westminster to Holyrood, or from Holyrood to local councils, is a completely different proposition to independence.
With a Scottish Parliament, we have the best of both worlds. Health is devolved but we have the strength and resources of the National Health Service across the UK. The Scottish Parliament can help shape our schools. Our universities, some of the best in the world, punch well above their weight by having access to UK research funds. We have a long history of innovation and discovery, from Dolly the Sheep to the Higgs Boson. Why cut ourselves off from that funding?
In other areas, too, we share costs. If we accept the value of Nato – as it seems all political parties now do – where defence is pooled, why pull ourselves apart from the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force? And why spend £600 million on tax inspectors when they exist already in the UK?
As Scots, we believe there is nowhere better. But we do know there is something bigger. By contributing to and benefiting from the multi-national and multi-cultural United Kingdom our society and culture is enriched.
The idea of coming together, of interdependence, is not just a reason to feel pride in a shared past. Standing together, shared endeavour: we have spent 300 years building that shared strength. Devolution has shown how it can work. And we can do much more together in the future. We can be strong in Scotland and stronger still as part of a successful UK. Scotland’s future – our future – will be economically, politically, and socially stronger as part of the UK. The coming together of family, friends, ideas and identities is a strength, not a weakness. We are better and stronger together.