It was with very little enthusiasm that, full of the Liberal Democrat Conference cold, I headed to Glasgow to spend 90 minutes watching Jim Naughtie in conversation with Alistair Darling as part of a series of lectures ahead of the Scottish Independence Referendum organised by the Herald in partnership with the International Network of Street Papers.
What motivated me off my sofa was the chance to see Darling in a proper chat. I think we get the best of him that way. I don’t think the Better Together communications people play to his strengths. Often when he appears on the political programmes, he’s either on a street corner looking windswept or in a remote studio. He can come across as a bit flat and a bit dour. They need to get him in the room having a proper conversation because he is bright, animated, interesting and funny. There are many logical arguments to vote against independence but we need to express them with warmth, passion and humour to motivate people to do so.
The event took place at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow, a venue with neither wifi nor phone signal so I had to go all retro and take notes with pen and paper. Naughtie opened proceedings by asking how Darling would deal with the argument that it’s worth being a bit worse off to be able to take our own decisions as an independent country.
Darling said that as a proud Scot, he felt that independence was too much of a risk. There were too many unanswered questions. Referring to the Government Expenditure Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures, he said that a £4.4 billion loss in revenue at a UK level is “irritating, but you can deal with it” whereas it’s a sum equivalent to the entire Scottish schools budget. The Scottish Finance Minister would have to take action quickly, either raising taxes or cutting spending. He also called out the SNP for pretending that you could have Scandinavian levels of public service on Tea Party tax rates.
The thing about Darling is that he has been a Finance Minister when a big bank told him that it could survive 2-3 hours and he had to take action to bail it out.
All the Nationalists’ currency options are terrible
Naughtie asked him what he’d do as a Scottish MP in the event of a Yes vote. Would he be arguing for a currency union? Darling said no, because he believed that it was not in Scotland’s interests any more than the rest of the UK’s (rUK’s). Our economies were too different in size and Scotland’s was too dependent on oil revenues.
He added that the reason the Eurozone wasn’t working was because of a lack of political union.
On the issue of an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU, he talked about how frustrating it was to get 27 other countries to agree on anything. In fact, he joked that a session of the European Council could make him want to join UKIP – although the cure for that was actually meeting someone from UKIP.
Naughtie told a story about meeting a drunk man in Edinburgh who had insisted he asked Farage the next time he interviewed him whether he parked his car in a GARage or a garAGE.
Put it to bed for a generation
Darling wants to win this referendum big. He knows the issue of independence will never go away completely but he wants to concentrate on falling life expectancy and improving health care and not go through the distractions of yet more talk of independence. He finds the lack of a debate between him and Salmond frustrating. He recognises that Salmond wants to make it a Scotland vs English Tories thing. He said it would be very odd to go to the polls without a debate because the First Minister wouldn’t take part.
He did make one absolute howler though, suggesting that Labour had laid the ground for legislating on the Calman Commission report. In fact, although they could have got the whole thing passed ahead of the 2010 election, Labour Secretary of State Jim Murphy didn’t bother and left it to Mike Moore to get through.
Balloons don’t vote
The biggest applause came when an audience member made the point that Better Together needed to be more positive. Darling said that he’d done a 50 minute speech which was entirely positive last Summer and it had got no coverage. (Not quite). He said that he was just as passionate and emotional about staying in the UK as the Nationalists were about independence. He acknowledged that Salmond was a great campaigner and in reply to Naughtie’s assertion that every child in Scotland would be holding a Yes balloon in the Summer, he wryly responded that balloons didn’t vote.
There were some heckles in the audience from Nationalists, who tutted and sighed at every opportunity like they do, but he handled them all pretty well.
The polls are all in Better Together’s favour at the moment. Things can change, though. The Darling on show last night can only help solidify support. More, please.