I’ve just been speaking to Alistair Darling…

Scotland’s Better Together campaign has for the first time allowed humble bloggers like me to talk to its Leader, former Chancellor Alistair Darling. He held a conference call with us to discuss his lecture at Glasgow University this morning in which he presented a case for staying in the union designed to appeal to both head and heart.

He told his audience of 300 that there were two sides to the pro-union argument. One was very factual, a hard headed calculation of the benefits of the economic union, the UK single market. The second was about he social and political union and our national identity, Scots being proud to be Scottish and British. He said:

We want Scots to make a positive choice to remain part of the UK, not merely to reject the risks and uncertainties of independence.

He talked through the fact that Scotland, since the Act of Union, had retained and developed its own religious, legal, administrative systems which are now responsible to the Scottish Parliament.

Of course there is an alternative nationalist narrative to this – a romantic fable of how a small nation was first absorbed by its larger neighbour, and struggled to regain its identity. But just as nationalist sentiment ignores the reality of how we as Scots belong to the UK, so this childish tale ignores the reality that, for Scotland, union has always meant the preservation of a distinct Scottish identity.

Later, he talked about the specifically British culture and institutions that we all value:

But the Olympic opening ceremony, a celebration of unity not difference, struck a chord with millions when it identified Britishness with the National Health Service. The BBC is the same. Scots have access not just to the best public service broadcaster in the world, but to a range of information and entertainment at least ten times wider than what we could hope to produce alone. More than that, it helps us sustain a common culture and identity.
It’s often said that nationalism is an appeal to the heart, while union appeals only to the head, being a calculation of where Scotland’s practical interests lie. That is wholly wrong.

He went on to talk about how your heart can warm both to Scottish history and feel a sense of pride and belonging to British values and institutions.

The first question wasn’t anything to do with the speech. It came from the Huffington Post and was about the idea I wrote about earlier,  that the Faslane nuclear submarine base could remain UK sovereign territory, something our Nick Harvey seemed keen to support (although Menzies Campbell rejected the idea).

Darling was scathing, describing it as ludicrous, nonsense, misconceived and misguided and said he was glad that the MOD had subsequently disowned the idea.

I asked about engaging people in the campaign. It often seems to be a wearisome procession of politicians and activists from both sides slinging insults at each other.  He agreed:

If the debate on independence takes the form of two sets of people criticising each other, it will turn people off.

He added, though, that some issues had definitely struck a chord with Scots. Salmond’s behaviour over  the EU legal advice issue had damaged his credibility, the disarray over the currency an independent Scotland would use and uncertainty over welfare and pensions worried people. He was clear, though, that most people could take or leave politics so we need to be sensitive to that. He commented that the US doesn’t even spend 18 months electing a President.

Only one hero

I brought up the unseemly display from both sides after the Andy Murray match. He was clear:

This was a sporting triumph. It has nothing to do with politics. There is only one hero and that’s Andy Murray.

What about the EU?

Was he worried, I wondered, about how people would feel if they saw the referendum as a choice between a Scotland in the EU and the rest of the UK being outside it. He replied that he didn’t think it figured much. For a start, it’s not even clear if there would be an in/out EU referendum at all, dismissing it as an internal Conservative party manner. He didn’t sound like a man who had any thought that Ed Miliband might change his mind and support such a referendum, despite what his Glasgow colleague Ian Davidson might say.

He was asked about how he saw the Labour pro union campaign in relation to Better Together. He replied that he knew what was going on in Labour’s campaign, which he saw as complementary, but he was 100% committed to Better Together.

Engaging with young people

16 and 17 year olds will have the vote in the referendum. My final question was about what Better Together was doing to engage with them. Darling replied that they were in the process of doubling the number of their youth representatives to 300, that there will be much effort put into active youth programmes. What encouraged me most was the idea that it’s the young people themselves who are growing this part of the campaign. They are listening and taking ideas from them and there will be lots of interesting things to look out for in the future.

Don’t judge a book by its cover

Darling’s lecture is serious, engaging and forward looking. Its 32 pages of words and infographics can be read here. Please don’t be put off by the cover, which is atrociously bad. It looks like the annual accounts of some company, the sort of thing that you would put straight in the recycling. Honestly, if you’re going to call something We belong together, you need to have it illustrated with lots of smiley, happy people. What you don’t need is a map of Britain looking like it fell out of a 1980s computer game. What’s with the dark, dark blue, too? This is a time for sunshine and blue sky. Better Together needs to get itself some better mood music to match Darling’s positive words.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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5 Comments

  • Daniel Henry 11th Jul '13 - 5:44pm

    You resisted the urge to make some Blackadder goes Fourth jokes then? 🙂

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 11th Jul '13 - 6:21pm

    I’m sure he must have heard them all before.

  • Al McIntosh 11th Jul '13 - 8:57pm

    “But the Olympic opening ceremony, a celebration of unity not difference, struck a chord with millions when it identified Britishness with the National Health Service.”

    Oh dear. another unionist gaffe by the leader of Bitter Together! He clearly doesn’t realise that NHS Scotland is already independent of the NHS elsewhere. It has cross border agreements with the NHS in the other parts of the UK.
    You would think that the Westminster chancellor that was responsible for the economic mess the last UK Labour government left behind couldn’t lose any more credibility. Yet somehow he always seems to manage it!

  • Alex Harvey 11th Jul '13 - 9:16pm

    I actually like the cover (agree it would like better if brighter, but still), but otherwise a fantastic article from Caron. Many thanks.

    Alistair Darling did indeed prevent total economic collapse, as Mr McIntosh said rather inelegantly above.

  • Hi Caron: Agree with your comments on the cover. Have not read the content yet, but will do..

    I really hope for a United Kingdom and celebrate our lives together … not just based on dry economic arguments. I fear there is not much a Sassenach can do to help … apart from reiterating that I love Scotland, Scottish people and really want us to stay together.

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