Eddie Barnes: Alistair Darling must emerge from the shadows

A POLL last week asked voters in Scotland how they thought the key figures involved the independence referendum campaign were faring. One striking finding emerged on the head of the Better Together campaign, Alistair Darling.

The former chief secretary to the Treasury, transport secretary, work and pensions secretary, Scottish secretary, trade secretary and chancellor, who left a 13-year spell in office with his reputation intact, might have expected to have seen that translated in the findings. Yet, when asked whether they were satisfied or not by how he was performing his job, 35 per cent said they didn’t know. Of those that did have a view, 33 per cent said they were satisfied while 32 per cent said they weren’t. That put him marginally in the plus column. But it was below the ratings for Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. Among his own supporters, Darling was given a +15 per cent approval rating, but that compared with +57 per cent for Sturgeon. Taken together, it all suggested he is not yet cutting through.

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The apparent indifference to Darling’s efforts may partly be due to the fact that, a year and a half out from the referendum vote, people and businesses are not yet overly consumed by the latest twist in the great referendum campaign. Nor does Darling have the platform of a seat at Holyrood from where to project his views. But it may also play into the character of the man himself. Darling is not exactly the kind of politician who makes it his business to promote his business (he only joined Twitter last week). Despite all those years in high office, he has largely remained hidden in plain sight. In the vacuum, a caricature has formed; that of the dull Edinburgh bank manager who, when transport secretary, was voted “most boring politician in Britain”. Darling appears at times to have enjoyed playing up to the image. But the argument goes that if this grey lawyer, who could send half the country to sleep, is up against a tub-thumping Salmond on the day before polling, then the pro-UK cause has had it.

Speaking to figures in the pro-UK side, there is a view that more needs to be done to ensure Darling emerges from behind this portrayal – a view cemented by last week’s poll findings. So far, Darling has stuck largely to the script, probing the pro-independence side on economic matters. Why, he asks, go to the bother of independence only to tie the country back to the UK through a monetary union? That’s all fine, but – it is asked – shouldn’t the country be seeing more of what makes him tick?

Only glimpses have come through – such as in Darling’s readable memoir Back from the Brink and in a few anecdotes (he once revealed to the Spectator magazine that, when still chancellor, his daughter had texted him: “Hey dad … is it true you’ve wrecked the economy?”). Personality politics a la Tony Blair does not exactly come across as Darling’s cup of tea. The referendum campaign, however, might leave him with no choice.