Alistair Darling has been an MP for 25 years. He served in the Labour Cabinet continuously from 1997 to 2010, and was Chancellor of the Exchequer for three years. Among the other post he has held are Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Sec. of State for Work and Pensions, Sec. of State for Transport, Sec. of State for Scotland and Sec. of State for Trade and Industry.
He is widely touted to lead the Campaign to Stop Scotland Becoming Independent, although he would prefer to call it Keep Scotland in Britain. (Since Britain has been an island for between 180,000 to 450,000 years, short of a drainage and infill plan for the English Channel, Scotland will remain part of Britain.) The campaign is, of course the campaign, to Keep Scotland in the UK, a political, not a geographical entity.
Given Darling’s curriculum vitae, one would expect him to be in command of his brief for an appearance on the Sunday Politics Scotland, a hugely influential news programme at this critical juncture in UK politics, not to mention European politics. Additionally, he was facing the programme anchor, Isabel Fraser, perhaps the most formidably effective political interviewer Scotland has produced, with a trained legal mind and forensic interviewing skills.
Watching his performance yesterday with increasing incredulity, I concluded that there were only three possible explanations for his lamentable performance -
1. He was politically naive. I think this can be safely rejected, except perhaps in the arcane area of negotiation, which politicians, unless they have a diplomatic background, are usually inept.
2. He was disingenuous. This seems the most likely partial explanation, namely, that he had been given (by who?) a brief to block questions about just what the hell David Cameron, his boss in the Campaign to Stop Scotland Becoming Independent - disorientated, full of Quaker Oats and full of emotional **** – meant when he delivered his jam-tomorrow ultimatum to the Scottish electorate – Vote No to your country’s independence and we might just give you some unspecified additional powers.
3. He was woefully unprepared. Whatever his state of mind or brief (1 and 2 above), Darling was undoubtedly woefully unprepared for the interview, both in factual terms, in strategic and tactical terms and above all in behavioural terms. (Half an hour with a bog-standard presentational skills consultant before the interview would have mitigated the disastrous consequences.)
Alistair Darling opened with what became his broken record theme, one that echoed the Prime Minister – the question “Are we staying in the United Kingdom or are we leaving” must be answered by a referendum “- sooner rather than later -” and must be answered first, then you decide what the consequences are. He also stated that tax raising powers had to be fundamental in any further devolution of powers.
Isabel Fraser: If what you are seeking is clarity in the debate, then isn’t it entirely reasonable that voters go into this referendum debate knowing exactly what you are proposing because here, today, you’re saying we could have more tax powers, they could be income tax powers … I mean, within that, before we just leave that concept – are you talking actually about the rate of income tax or the threshold? Could we vary the threshold? And equally, if we have income tax powers, there's no point in having that if you want to be fiscally coherent unless you have borrowing powers which allow you to offset any fall in income tax revenue?
Alistair Darling: You could – but I mean, look -
Isabel Fraser: Are you saying all of that is up for discussion?
Alistair Darling: Look, I don’t think anybody would argue that the status quo – what we have at the moment, erm – is satisfactory. It was fine in 1998. Things have moved on – the constitution is always something you need to look and see what’s best. But the first question you’ve got to ask before you get on top any change at all, is – Are we staying in the UK – or – are we going to leave? If we’re going to leave, a whole lot of other questions then arise: if we’re going to stay, then we can look at what further we need to do.
But I honestly cannot see for the life of me why we’ve got to wait till 2014 before we can actually answer that question. Why don’t we get on with it – we could easily have this referendum –eh – next year and decide that and then decide if – if we’re going to stay, then let’s look at what more we can devolve – what more powers the Scottish Parliament can have - and I think, y’know – most people, I mean, y’know – David Cameron – in actually a welcome step for the Conservatives has said – look – he’s moved from the position of being – y’know – the traditional Tory position of being outrightly against any change to that there could well be change – and equally on the nationalist side … You know, if they’re going to leave the United Kingdom, then let’s look at some of the consequences of that …
Having just transcribed this rambling statement –which confirmed in spades my initial impression of it in the broadcast – I look again with incredulity at Darling’s c.v. above. I would have expected such fractured syntax and confusion of ideas from John Prescott, but from a former Chancellor of the Exchequer? Note the transition from ‘we’ when initially talking about the referendum decision to ‘they’, as in “You know, if they’re going to leave the United Kingdom ..” That confusion of identity is going to dog the Campaign to Stop Scotland Becoming Independent throughout. The Scottish electorate know who they are – the unionist coalition do not.
But back to the interview …
Isabel Fraser: But Mr. Darling, it would seem that what you’re proposing is a one-sided debate. I mean – why do we have to wait for the alternative? This is going to be the most important vote in 300 years of Scottish history. What you’re saying is – trust us, and we will deliver. You’re requiring this enormous leap of faith. Why, if you accept now the status quo is no longer an option, why not spell out clearly what the alternatives are so the people can make an informed judgement about whether we stay within the United Kingdom – or not?
Alistair Darling: Well, isn’t the first question you have to ask is – Are you staying or are you going?
Isabel Fraser: But people are already asking the other question. Is the fact that you’re not raising the possibility of further powers a concession that actually Labour in Scotland have been completely out of the game on this – you are so far behind the curve? Why don’t you seize the initiative and outline a coherent and positive case where people can make a judgement about whether what you’re proposing is what they want or not?
Alistair Darling: Well, actually you know – if you look at, erm – in the pipeline there are changes being made – the Calman Commission, and so on, which we set in train, but what – what, what I do think is that the way in which you address the question of whether we’re staying in the UK or whether we’re leaving is – is got to be a positive case, it’s got to be what is best for Scotland: and my answer to that question is – the Scotland will derive huge benefits from the strength of the UK, just as the UK has huge strengths about – eh, through being in the European Union. You’re part of a bigger – eh – country, you’re part of something that’s much stronger, that benefits can flow from that …
Now – the first question you’ve got to ask so far as the current debate is going on is – are we staying in the United Kingdom or are we leaving? Now, we could easily have that question decided far, far sooner than Alex Salmond wants. I understand why he wants to put it off – because he doesn’t think he can win at the moment. We need to answer that question now, and then once you’ve decided that, then you decide – if you’re staying – well, what more, eh, powers does, eh, the Scottish Parliament need – that is best for Scotland. If you’re leaving, then – you know, you then have to ask all sorts of difficult question, to which at the moment, there are pretty vague answers. You need to get that discussion now!
Isabel Fraser: If, as you want, Scotland says no to independence, what kind of political leverage do you really imagine Scotland would have in going to Westminster and asking for more powers after a No vote in Scotland? It would have no leverage at all.
Alistair Darling: No, it – I think it would – because there is – you know, in a way that, eh, would have been unimaginable even a year ago – I think there is a consensus amongst all the political parties, and more importantly in some ways amongst Scotland itself, and, y’know, other parts of the UK that, that, that the settlement reached in 1998 – eh is – is not what we want at the moment – we need to move on from that. People fully understand that – and of course there’s going to be a lot of debate as to what you devolve or what you don’t, y’know, and what the arrangements might be … But the first question – I’m sorry to keep going – coming back to this is that – I understand fully well the nationalists don’t want – eh – they want to another option on the table to sort of muddy the waters here. Let’s answer the question – Are we staying or are we going? Once you’ve answered that question then, you know – then there does need to be, y’know, an immediate debate about what further powers the Scottish Parliament needs, and so on.
And remember whilst all this is going on, an awful lot of people in – in Scotland are facing losing their jobs, who are worried about their children or their grandchildren – and so on … y’know, its the economy, that’s the thing that actually matters – these are the big questions. But let’s get this constitutional question decided one and for all - it’s being raised now – let’s put it to the people and let the people decide, and then you know, the politicians have to get on with it And – and do what they what they need to do as quickly as they can.
Isabel Fraser: So, Mr. Darling, what message does Johann Lamont as leader of Scottish Labour have to give to the Labour conference in a few weeks, then? Fairly briefly, if you don’t mind – and clearly. What’s the message she has to get out?
Alistair Darling: Well, I think the message is very clear - it’s got to be about – y’know, it’s about all the difference a Labour administration can make at the local authorities which are coming up for election in May – the difference that the Scottish Parliament already have in relation to training, in relation to education, in relation to our universities and so on. You know, this is a very powerful message – Labour can make a difference. and on the constitution, y’know – yes, we have moved – and yeah, we needed to move. Eh, but on the fundamental, question, we are much, much stronger – we will be a far better nation, eh, within the United Kingdom than we would by breaking ourselves apart from that. It is a very powerful message, and I’m quite sure she’ll make it.
Isabel Fraser: Alistair Darling, thank you very much indeed for that.
MY VIEW: Anyone who thinks Alistair Darling would be the right person to lead the Unionist campaign after this showing needs to think again. Coherence and charisma were notable by their absence from this performance.
I can offer a negotiator’s summary of the situation -
There is going to be a referendum in 2014 on Scotland’s independence. It cannot be stopped by the UK Government without risking a political upheaval, and they have, de facto, accepted this.
The UK don’t want Scotland to leave the UK.
The UK didn’t want a referendum at all, but since there will be one, they want it as fast as possible, with one question only.
The Scottish Government intend to hold a referendum in 2014 on Scotland’s independence. The SNP as a party want full independence, but opinion polls indicate that a substantial number of the Scottish electorate (and a body called Civic Scotland) want greater powers for Scotland but want to remain in the UK.
The Scottish Government, as the government of all the people of Scotland, are obliged to ascertain what questions and what options the electorate want to see on the referendum ballot paper. This will be determined by a large-scale consultation, now underway.
No unionist (UK) political party has set out their views of what extra powers – if any- they envisage being granted, and no comprehensive arguments for remaining in the UK, other than vague emotional ones, coupled with the assertion that Scotland is better in than out, have been offered.
The UK Prime Minister has offered only tentative commitment to as yet unspecified powers, but only if Scotland votes no in the referendum on a singe YES/NO question to independence.
No agreement exists between the UK and the Scottish governments on -
1. The timing of the referendum.
2. Its legality.
3. The wording of the independence question.
4. Additional question on the ballot paper.
5. Votes for 16 and 17 year olds.
Since the referendum is a consultative referendum, a YES vote to independence would be followed by negotiations on the mechanics of implementing independence.
A NEGOTIATOR’S RECOMMENDATIONS
There are two negotiations in this situation, one of which has already started – which I will call the pre-referendum negotiation – and one which will start after the referendum result is known, which I will call the post-referendum negotiation.
The pre-referendum negotiation will be a prime determinant of the referendum negotiation, which negotiators sometimes call the context and agenda negotiation. It is critical from a power dynamics situation, since failure to reach agreement at this stage can result in unilateral action by one or both parties.
Political negotiations take place in a very different context to commercial negotiations because of the media spotlight and the information needs of the electorate. In this negotiation, the Scottish Government is the change agent and the UK Government represents the status quo. The Scottish Government derives its mandate from the Scottish people, but within a devolved settlement controlled by the UK Government.
To use a very old negotiating classification, this is a conflict of interest, not a conflict of rights under UK law, although international rights do exist. Conflicts of interest are settled by agreement or by power: conflicts of rights under existing agreements are settled by negotiation or by law.
Essentially, the context is one of negotiations between nations, i.e. diplomacy, even though the Scottish Government is not yet independent. In the case of any nation seeking independence, the subordinate nation has to behave as though it were independent before that independence actually exists, i.e. it has to emphasise its capacity to act unilaterally even though the status quo does not theoretically permit it to do so. This is why much of the legalistic discussion that rages is peripheral and essentially meaningless.
The implicit unilateral action here is that the Scottish Government will hold a referendum on its terms and on its timing, with or without the permission and imprimatur of Westminster.
This has in fact gone beyond being implicit – it is explicit, and, de facto, has been accepted by Westminster, because the alternative would be civil unrest on a scale that would make the poll tax riots look like a tea party. Everybody in Scotland knows this – few are willing to publicly acknowledge it.
It is therefore vital that the UK Government gets its act together for the pre-referendum negotiation so that the referendum itself can be conducted in a national climate of consensus about its purpose, if not about its outcome.
The outcome of the referendum has to be accepted equally by those who voted YES and those who voted NO – and perhaps those who voted for other options on the ballot paper or papers. Only then can the negotiations that follow a vote for full independence – the post-independence negotiation – take place in the right atmosphere.
Only then can the negotiations – if any – that follow a vote for remaining in the UK be meaningful. Whether those negotiations take place at all will be determined in part by the balance of the vote, and critically, by whether or not choices other than straight independence, e.g. devo plus, devo max or devo something are offered on the ballot paper.
I therefore offer the following recommendations to the parties -
To the UK unionist parties and anti-independence campaign
Drop the pejorative, emotional language and concentrate on setting out the factual benefits of remaining in the UK
Stop pretending that Scotland being a free sovereign state within the European Union would be the same thing as being a devolved, non-sovereign part of the sovereign state of the UK. In the first case, it would be a free association of inter-dependent cooperation between nations: in the second, it is being a subordinate region of a sovereign nation within Europe, with no place at the European table and no capacity to influence the agenda.
Exactly the same recommendations in respect of the United Nations, and to membership of NATO or Partnership for Peace.
Stop trying to influence the outcome of the independence referendum by vague, unspecified commitments to offering a little more power conditional upon a No vote.
To the SNP and pro-independence campaign
Sharpen the vital democratic distinction between the SNP, as a political party and the party of government, and the Scottish Government as the Government of Scotland.
Make it clear that the SNP does not want anything other than independence and a single question referendum, and that this is the party’s unified consensus.
Make it clear the the Scottish Government will only include a devo max or devo plus type question in the referendum ballot if the consultation exercise clearly demonstrates a wish for such an option, and that if it doesn’t, no such option will be included, regardless of the views of Civic Scotland or any other non-democratic body.
Set an early deadline for the conclusion of the pre-referendum negotiations on the points of disagreement. i.e.
1. The timing of the referendum.
2. Its legality.
3. The wording of the independence question.
4. Additional question on the ballot paper.
5. Votes for 16 and 17 year olds.
A negotiation without deadlines is an endless negotiation – be prepared to call time if negotiations fail, and unilaterally state the Scottish Government’s position on items one to four above. (It is probably a bridge to far to unilaterally commit to votes for 16 and 17 year olds.)
Publicly acknowledge and reiterate at every opportunity(it has already been stated at road shows, meetings etc.) that the independence of Scotland is a bigger question than the manifesto of any single party, nationalist and unionist, and that how Scotland is governed - and by which party or parties - after independence will be the decision of the Scottish people in democratic elections.