This curious speech by Alistair Darling bears listening to twice. If you wish to have the text in front of you, here it is:
‘I do not believe there will be another Scottish referendum in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime.
I’ll tell you why not.
Firstly, the public don’t want it. Most of the British public, never mind the Scottish public, are heartily sick of referendums. They divide, they turn people against each other – the scars are deep, they’re still there in Scotland. And people don’t want to go through that again.
Secondly, the emotion of what happened in 2014, it’s still there, but the economics have got worse. Oil prices are a case in point. It’s interesting that the nationalists now openly talk about the virtual fraudulent nature of the document they produced in 2013 which set out the economic case. None of them will stand by it now, yet there’s another one coming out on Friday. What seems to be different is we’re now going to have a Scottish pound: sharing the pound is off the agenda. They’ve probably noticed that if you spend a lifetime abusing the people that you don’t like and then you break away and say, now can we have a close relationship with you, it doesn’t somehow work. Look for example at what’s going on at the present time. But the economic argument has changed, and to make the economic case I think will be very difficult. But to assume therefore that’s it, is a huge mistake – not just because I said there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action but because if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’
I used to like Alistair Darling well enough; I even met him once, in a surreal moment at the height of the economic crisis in Autumn 2008, when he as Chancellor of the Exchequer was for some reason touring the BBC in Glasgow, where I was part of a group of writers learning about writing for radio.
But I do not believe, on the strength of that speech, that I will be able to trust Alistair Darling, now or in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime.
I’ll tell you why not.
Firstly, he equates democratic debate with civil war: here we have a politician asserting that people do not want to have their say on matters that concern them, that they are fed up with being asked, because it just provokes strife. It is assertions like this that distinguish the career politician from the genuine democrat, the time-server from the public servant. I wonder which the people of the Balkans would have preferred – a divisive referendum on the future of Yugoslavia, and the figurative scars that went with it, or what actually happened to them?
Secondly, the dishonesty that was there in 2014, it’s still there, but it’s got worse. Oil prices are a case in point: at the very time Mr Darling was giving this speech, oil prices were at the highest they have been for four years, and are set to rise still further . Yet he implies the opposite. I am not aware of any nationalists talking openly about the ‘virtual fraudulent nature’ of their 2013 document [what does that actually mean? that it wasn’t fraudulent? that it wasn’t an actual document?] but I certainly don’t hear Mr Darling acknowledging the blatant dishonesty of his own campaign – that Scotland would be left without a currency, that Scotland would have to leave the EU unless it voted ‘No’ (how did that one work out, Alistair?).
At the very time the pro-union coalition were asserting that they would never enter a currency union, each of them knew that in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, the first thing that would happen would be a round-table negotiation on that and related matters – that, after all, is how politics works.
(In fact, it was the sheer ineptitude of the ‘better together’ campaign – fronted (one can hardly say ‘led’) by the same Mr Darling – that led me to shift from an initial ‘No’ to an increasingly certain ‘Yes’ as time went on:
(And while we’re on the matter of currency unions between countries where one breaks away after a long history of friction and indeed open rebellion, we might ask if Alistair has any knowledge of our financial relations with the Republic of Ireland – Eire –- from its inception in 1937 as successor to the Free State. The Irish Pound, which was tied to sterling for 40 years – how did that work out, Alistair?)
Finally, there is the strange incoherence that lies below the polished rhetoric: which referendum is he actually talking about? From the initial conflation of the British public with the Scottish (but never mind them) through his reference to deep, scarring division, to that curious statement about wanting a close relationship with people you have broken away from having spent a lifetime abusing them and the invitation to ‘look… at what’s going on at the present time’ it is almost as if he had forgotten the intended subject of his speech and switched to talking about Brexit instead.
And what on earth is he trying to say in that final paragraph?
‘But the economic argument has changed, and to make the economic case I think will be very difficult. But to assume therefore that’s it, is a huge mistake – not just because I said there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action but because if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’
From emphatically telling us at the outset that no-one wants to talk about independence, let alone be asked to vote on it, he now makes the astonishing concession that ‘there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action’ (and let us remember that ‘core’ means ‘heart’) and furthermore ‘if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’
And there, if you like, he lets the cat out of the bag. He senses (as I do) that in the wake of Brexit – where Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain* only to be told that they must accept the desire of a large minority of the British electorate (17.4 million out of 46.5) – there is a growing feeling that we would be better not shackled to an England heading resolutely in the wrong direction, trying to revive an idea of itself as a major player on a world stage that has changed out of all recognition (do not forget that we joined the EEC precisely because the old order had changed).
I think that Darling senses, as I do, that the Scottish people would rather like to revisit the question of independence, not because they are dyed-in-the-wool nationalists – I certainly am not – but because they would prefer to be a small nation acting in concert with our neighbours in the largest trading bloc in an interdependent world than part of a larger nation pursuing a solo course with neither economic nor strategic power to sustain it.
I may be wrong, of course; but I would be perfectly happy to ask the people again what they think now, on both matters – Scottish Independence and Membership of the EU. Isn’t that how democracy is meant to work?
Never trust a politician who says that people do not want to be consulted on matters that concern them.
*interestingly, the Scottish vote exactly mirrors the percentage of the electorate who did not vote to leave (i.e. those who voted remain plus those who did not vote) to those who voted to leave – 62% to 38% in both cases.