Alistair Darling on changing his mind and a return to the front line in the battle to save the Union
The former chancellor is, arguably, the only credible survivor from the fag-end days of the New Labour government. Despite being in the economic hot seat as the banks went down and in the front row while the bitter internal feuding and displays of paranoia ripped through Downing Street during the party’s dying days in office, he has emerged fairly unscathed, with his reputation intact.
But then Darling is a survivor. He has been in elected politics since 1982, when the privately educated advocate, who had flirted with the extreme left of politics before joining the Labour Party, was elected as a councillor in Edinburgh for Lothian Region, where he served until he was elected to Westminster in 1987.
He is one of just three MPs to serve uninterrupted in the Labour Cabinet from 1997 until the party’s defeat in the 2010 election, the other two being Gordon Brown and Jack Straw, and has held a large number of ministerial portfolios including that of transport minister, which afforded him the questionable accolade, two years in a row, of being voted ‘the most boring politician’ by Truckers Weekly – a prize which Darling considered something of a compliment because he said that transport only became interesting when it was going wrong.
But after 23 years in front-line politics, in either the shadow cabinet or for 13 years in government, Darling announced he would be stepping back from the spotlight, just days into the first term of the current Coalition Government and even before his own party’s leadership campaign had begun.
It was a surprise only to those who do not know him. He had no desire to lead the party himself and frankly, he had simply had enough.
And who could blame him. He had succeeded Gordon Brown as Chancellor who, as PM, clearly found it difficult to keep out of his new Chancellor’s business, he had dug his heels in over potential reshuffles and dodged numerous Machiavellian manoeuvres, particularly by Ed Balls but also, within six weeks of taking up residence at Number 11, he found himself in the eye of a financial storm as the country experienced its first run on a bank since 1860, when tens of thousands queued to withdraw their savings from Northern Rock. The Chancellor’s pleas for calm were ignored by the customers and six months later, Labour reluctantly nationalised the bank. The rest, as they say, is history.
Amid all of this turmoil, Darling kept his cool and what the public see in him is not so much a man who presided over a financial Armageddon but an honourable politician who told the truth about the serious state of the economy and suffered the consequences of his political leaders turning on him; and who, in his words, ‘unleashed the forces of hell’ on him after he warned in 2008 that the UK faced the worst economic downturn in 60 years.
He is also the man who, despite all that his government has been vilified for its handling of the country’s purse strings by all the main parties at Westminster, is the one that they have since entrusted with saving the Union.
When Darling and I last spoke, this time last year, he was adamant that he would not be the politician that would spearhead the anti-independence movement. He told me he had had enough of front-line politics and was looking forward to taking a political backseat.
He had also penned his own account of the banking crisis and his time in office and was doing the book tour.
But not that long after publishing his memoirs, Back from the Brink which, like him, reflects a non-hysterical approach to looming disaster, he has been persuaded to come back from the brink and take what will be a very high-profile role in the next few weeks and months as the chairman of the Better Together campaign.
Interviewing him last week about this new challenge, I remind him that he had been unequivocal that he would not become the antiindependence figurehead. What changed?
“Well…I changed my mind,” he says matter-offactly.
“Look, I just took the view that this was something so important that I couldn’t afford to sit on the sidelines and hope that someone else turned up to do the job.
“It is the biggest decision Scots will take in a generation and if it all goes wrong, from my point of view, then it is irrevocable and I don’t want to wake up on the day afterwards and wished I had done something.
“You are right, I was reluctant last time we spoke but I was enjoying my time away from front-line politics and I still do, to a certain extent, but this was just too big a thing to ignore and so I became involved and here I am.” Darling’s default position is one of common sense and it is in that fashion that he describes his involvement in Better Together. But in fact, far from it being a run-of-the-mill event, it was widely reported in the media that in a precursor to the campaign launch, senior aides to David Cameron had taken part in a so-called, secret all-party ‘council of war’ at Darling’s Edinburgh home in a bid to stop Scottish independence.
In breathless accounts of a covert operation conducted in the unlikely setting of leafy Morningside, No 10 director of political strategy, Andrew Cooper and former Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie, along with Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander and Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy, with the Liberal Democrats represented by Euan Roddin, the special adviser to Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, were all said to have sat round the Darlings’ kitchen table in historic talks, plotting how to defeat Alex Salmond in the referendum on independence.
It was reported that the men spent three hours discussing their battle plans at that meeting at Darling’s home which had become their unofficial HQ. Refreshed by tea and sandwiches, provided by Darling’s wife, Maggie, they agreed that the only way to defeat Salmond was to bury their differences and join forces in what was being described as the ‘Abbotsford Accord’ after the street in which he lives.
Darling smiles at the colourful account and is slightly dismissive of the idea that he would be involved in anything so theatrical or furtive.
“No one said anything to anyone as such,” he says. “There wasn’t any great summit and if you go back to the time that the referendum moved from something that, frankly, we might or might not have because that’s where it was at, at the end of 2011, and to when David Cameron upped the ante and the possibility moved from a might to a would – although, as we speak, the deal is not yet done but let’s assume there will be a referendum – I just became frustrated that there did not seem to be any focus to the campaign to persuade people of the benefits of being in the UK. Nobody sat down and pleaded with me to do this but I just became more and more frustrated, perhaps more vocal about that, and like the old saying goes, ‘if you want something doing, then do it yourself’, so I then made it clear to the other parties that I would play a part. The only thing I said was that if I was going to lead this then I would not be a delegate for the other party leaders. It is terribly important that this is a campaign that attracts people that are not identified with a particular party and the meeting that you refer to at my house was actually one of many meetings we held, and not that secret. I was always convinced and clear that if this was going to work then someone had to put some effort into it and so I did, and here we are now, we are set up and ready to go. The launch was the first big public thing and we have a fair idea of where we need to be at each stage of the game but we are all set to go and the frustration is that we can’t get going until we know there is a referendum campaign actually on.” Could there not be a referendum? There’s an audible gulp from Darling’s newly installed Director of Communications, Rob Shorthouse, who, while reportedly earning in excess of £100,000 a year in his new role, left his job with Strathclyde Police to join Better Together and if there’s no referendum, then he has no job.
“It’s not an idle question although the mood music is that we are going to have one but I can’t answer that without seeing the definite agreement because it has always struck me that Salmond is happiest arguing about process and procedure.
“We are now in almost the tenth month of discussions about this and we still don’t have a date, the question or anything, really, and if a man from Mars arrived, he would probably find it fairly easy to come up with a date, a question and also a date within shouting distance rather than one which is the best part of two years away.
“I don’t think you can take anything for granted and I can see many reasons why Salmond would want to put off the day despite it being something he has wanted since he was a child.
“This is someone who has essentially spent most of his lifetime pursuing a political belief that is based on the idea that Scotland has somehow been cheated out of something and it’s deep in his psyche and he has always seemed to me to be far more comfortable arguing about the process than actually answering some specific questions on things like the currency. It’s odd, though, that this is a party that has been in existence for 80 odd years and it can’t answer some pretty basic questions, so I can well see why he would stay on process because it allows him to continue going on about something he is being denied. It is pretty strange that it is us on the unionist side that are saying, ‘let’s get on with this’.” Much has been made of Salmond’s everchanging view of what independence would mean for Scotland. With the retention of the Queen, the currency, position on the EU and even Nato membership now up for discussion, doesn’t Darling just accept that views of independence change with changed global circumstances?
“Either you want independence or you don’t and I’m not sure much changes on that but he is now trying to run an argument that says nothing will change but actually, everything will change.
Take the currency, which is pretty important, up until the end of last year, it was at some point we’ll join the euro and then it was ‘we’ll use the pound in the same way as the pound might use the dollar’ and that became a bit uncomfortable because someone pointed out that a foreign bank would set your interest rates and then he came up with this currency union idea and of all the years to pick a currency union, it was very odd because you have to have the other lot to agree to it because it is a shared sovereignty, if you like, and he has had no discussions with the Government, never mind the English, Welsh or Northern Irish people who would have to agree to it and the second thing about the currency union, which he chooses to ignore, is that it takes you to political union. Why on earth would you go through all the trouble of breaking from the UK to arrive back where you started?
That doesn’t look to me like a man that changes his ideas of independence because circumstances have changed; it sounds like a man that is making it up on the hoof.
“If he has said, ‘I recognise that the world has changed and we are far more interdependent and independence is no longer a goal that it might have been in the 1950s and therefore, what I am after is something less than that’, I would have respected that but that is not his position, his position is that Scotland should be an independent state.” Throughout Darling’s narrative is the view that Salmond doesn’t actually want independence but likes the battle. Why would he do that?
“I am not a psychoanalyst,” he smiles.”I don’t know and I do wonder, though, how a remarkably docile SNP is going to put up with this. The argument they want to run is it’s Scotland against Tory cuts and yet one of the consequences of the currency union is that you have to have a fiscal pact. so you couldn’t go it alone, you couldn’t pursue a policy so very different from the one you don’t like and it is interesting that you are starting to hear some murmurs from inside the SNP and there will come a point when they have to expose these arguments and people will see that what they are offering them is a complicated currency union where we are the junior partner because we are smaller, and we are not free to do the things Salmond says because the other side won’t stand for it. That is what is happening in the EU now and you can see what happens with a currency union, it ends in a terrible mess.” Darling says that despite his former job in the Exchequer and being better placed than most to know if the sums add up, his argument for staying in the Union is both an economic, and an emotional one. He says that in some way, the Unionists had abandoned the idea of having any rights to the emotional argument which the Nationalists appeared to have a monopoly on.
“When I sat down to write my speech on the day of the launch, one of the things I realised early on was that on our side, we had almost let the emotional side go and had said the Nats can win on that but actually, that’s not true because whether it is on a personal level, and most of us have friends and relatives south of the border and vice versa for that matter, or about the emotional argument relating to some of the things we have achieved as the UK, then they are powerful emotional reasons for staying and they do resonate. Take the argument about the BBC, for example, and we can all be skunnered with the BBC from time to time but I suspect there is no other channel that can rival it around the world in terms of output. Similarly, on an emotional-cum-practical argument, many people in Scotland are passionate, and rightly so, about the conditions for people in Africa and we, as the UK, are one of the world’s biggest donors to overseas aid, we, as the UK, also have a seat on the United Nations Security Council, are [the] biggest shareholders in the IMF and all these things you give up as a smaller country because you have less influence. There are many things that are dear to people in Scotland that are about us being part of the UK but also and obviously, it is also about the economy, stupid and when people go to cast their vote they will be thinking – what is this going to do to my family or to my friends – so clearly, the economic argument is a very important one but you give up the emotional argument at your peril. Emotions do matter of course; it matters how you feel about your country and so on and I have never seen the conflict of being both Scottish and British.” I ask him whether he felt there was any conflict in him as a male, Labour MP, stepping forward to lead the campaign against Scottish independence, given the fuss there had been post the Scottish parliamentary elections to distance the control of the Scottish Labour Party from that of the UK?
“The idea was that this campaign was about setting something up that was distinct from the party so while obviously, Johann is the leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, just as Willie Rennie is of the Lib Dems and Ruth Davidson is for the Tories, this campaign was quite deliberately constructed to have some distance between it and the mainstream parties.
We obviously have their tacit support but in some ways, this will only work if we can attract people who are not identified with the political parties and at our launch, we chose deliberately to have at the centre people who, if they had any political connection, it was a passive sort of thing, whereas in contrast to that, [the] nationalist launch was like something out of a 1970s 7:84 production. What we want to do, and we are well on our way to doing, is [to] set up an umbrella body where, for instance, there are business groups who are not aligned to a party but believe we are better together in the UK and would feel comfortable being part of an independent campaign but [do] not want to be involved in one that is party aligned.
I think there was a need for a campaign and our sole job is to convince people that in the referendum they should vote to stay in the UK, and that is all we are set up to do. We are not a policy organisation or anything else so it’s a fairly narrow focus there.” That’s interesting. I suggest that the Yes campaign is also very clearly a non-policy-based campaign headed up by a non-politician, purely there to persuade people to vote for independence.
Does that mean we will have a policy vacuum if the two campaigns go head-to-head?
“I am pretty clear that on the other side, that there is only one person that really calls the shots and the Yes campaign only exists because Alex Salmond said it would exist and I don’t think anyone would be on it if he hadn’t said they could, so I don’t make the distinction that some people do. The only thing I do notice is that Blair Jenkins [chief executive of Yes] refuses to answer any policy questions and you won’t get through a campaign by doing that.
“A campaign requires many different people of different skills and disciplines and you don’t need to be an MP or MSP to run a campaign but obviously, if you have been elected, you have to know something about campaigning because presumably, you wouldn’t have got elected there otherwise but I am less bothered, actually, about the construction of the two camps and more concerned about the arguments and that is the thing that will decide the thing rather than who is connected to which campaign.
“At the moment Blair Jenkins’ view is to run the campaign and unless we are discussing the seating arrangement or something technical like that, he is going to say nothing and I want to debate with Alex Salmond or whoever from that side, the merits of the arguments and the people of Scotland will feel cheated if there isn’t such a discussion. In my view, this can’t be about anything else other than policy.
“This debate is about policies par excellence and the entire campaign will be fought on arguments for and against, and how you can possibly say, as Blair Jenkins will, ‘well, here I am but I am not going to discuss our currency, the EU, in fact, I am not going to discuss anything’, you can’t do that and yes, we are in a bit of phony war at the moment but once the starting gun gets fired, you can’t have a debate where one side is meant to answer questions of policy and the other side says they can’t because that’s someone else’s department. I think they will need to rethink that or else at some point the SNP will put someone else up who can.” Darling makes a persuasive case but the flaw in his argument is that he is a party-political animal heading up a cross-party campaign. When it comes to arguments about policy, how can he answer for the Tories or the Lib Dems? Isn’t his position as insidious as that of Jenkins?
“Look, our policy is that we are better together in the UK…there is quite a big issue here because the referendum is not like a general election where parties put in their manifestos and you vote them in and if they don’t come up with the goods, you kick them out in five years’ time, this is more fundamental than that. This is about a question which might lead to an arrangement which might last for 200 or 300 years, which will see several different governments of several different political hues and I can see why the Nationalists want to say that this is about Scotland being a land of milk and honey vs the wicked Tories. I understand why they want to do that but I don’t think it will wash because people know it is more than that. In terms of the common thing that is behind the Better Together campaign, while of course we have criticism of each other’s policies, and I am very critical of the current government’s economic policy, for instance, but just because I don’t think they are right and profoundly wrong on some things, doesn’t mean I want to tear up the constitutional arrangements.” On the idea of a second question, Darling says there is only one question and that is whether Scotland stays in the Union or not. He says that you can not put something on a ballot paper that is not specific and says both Devo Max and Devo Plus could mean anything from a little more power to everything bar foreign affairs.
“I don’t think you can put something on the ballot paper which is not clear either to the voter and assuming if that question won, what does the Government do because what did people vote for and in some sense you get the worst of both worlds because people get that sense of grievance that they voted for something and didn’t get it but the reason you didn’t get it was because no one knew what it was. I am with Nicola Sturgeon with this when she said in a debate with me earlier this year that you can’t put something on the ballot paper that is not specific.
“Another complicating element is that if you want anything more than a fairly minor change to the constitutional arrangement then at some point you are going to have to ask the rest of the UK which means that all the parties in a general election would have to have in their manifesto what they would intend to do. At the moment this question has been confined to north of the border but once you go a little bit further then you are going to have to engage with the rest of the UK which is a rather different debate to the one we have had so far but firstly we have to decide in our own house, in Scotland, what we are going to do.” Darling is not one for histrionics and is, above all, a pragmatist. He is a politician apparently untouched by spin. He is boringly straightforward and quite apolitical, in a tribal sense, for which he makes no apology but I sense on this issue, he is less comfortable than I have ever felt him before. I ask him if he thinks he will win the argument.
“Yes…there’s no reason why we can’t,” he says, matter-of-factly.