Darling as Avatar
By all accounts it has been a good couple of months for the Unionist campaign. Polls showing a decrease or at least no increase in support for independence have put the wind in the sails of the opponents of “separatism”. The spectacle of the London Olympics – an event that would be recognised in any minimally sane universe as a colossal distraction and an unforgivable waste of money – has put a new spring in the step of the apostles of Britishness. The success of #TeamGB providing, on their account, a perfect example of the things we can achieve together – an argument that seems to assume that if Scotland became independent, Chris Hoy’s thigh muscles would immediately deteriorate.
For its part, the leadership of the main body of the independence movement, the Scottish National Party, seem less and less interested in mobilizing an effective campaign. Instead, Alex Salmond wants to spend the rest of his summer winning favour with broadsheet editorial writers by pushing through a commitment to Scottish membership of NATO – a historically defunct nuclear alliance long destined for the knackers-yard of history. The SNP leadership’s strategy tends more and more towards the belief that if Scots can be convinced that Independence will change nothing, they’ll vote for it. The proposition could hardly be more absurd, but for those of a conservative mindset, it is unassailable. What comfort, then, for pro-independence Scots not minded towards that kind of worthless pettifogging and triangulation?
At the moment, the main source of our strength ought to be the official Unionist campaign. In the first place, take a look at the historical personalities who man the stations of this movement. Willie Rennie, Ruth Davidson and Johann Lamont would hardly strike most people as the most impressive political operators imaginable. What, though, of the Big Beast, the intellectual core of modern-day Unionism, Alistair Darling? Of all the main political figures inside Better Together, Darling is perhaps the most worthy of some attention, at the very least because he has somehow convinced the Scottish media class – ever impressed by someone who has “made it” under the bright lights of London – that he actually represents something substantial.
What does Mr. Darling amount to? He is not, lest anyone be at all confused, a Labour politician, at least in the strict sense, for what kind of violence would it do to our political discourse to qualify as a Labour politician someone who promised to ravage Britain with cuts ‘worse than Thatcher’ at the last General Election? Some of our friends on the Left would suggest he is a neoliberal ideologue, an avatar for the degeneration of the British Labour movement and its outright capitulation to Finance Capital. But what then of his decision to raise taxes on high earners or levy a tax on bankers’ bonuses in his last budget as Chancellor? Others of a more nationalist hue would condemn him as an intractable Unionist of the worst sort, a careerist committed to using all the accoutrements of the British imperialist state to buttress his own ego and power-mania. Even this assessment however would over-state the case. It would imply, wrongly, that Mr. Darling was motivated by some real issue of principle, that he had a core of political virtue, an Idea that he must pursue at the expense of all others – the glory of old Britannia. But does anyone doubt for a second that if Scotland were to become independent, Mr. Darling would be shuffling about the halls of power at Holyrood looking for a role? On sober reflection, all Mr. Darling’s substantive positions are perfunctory, endlessly malleable and subject to provision if the occasion requires it. He was, after all, formerly a revolutionary socialist.
In a previous article, I described him as ‘the most non-descript human being alive’. I think that’s fair, but it’s also incomplete. It is important to realise that whatever position Mr. Darling is defending at a given moment, it will be the position favoured by people opposed to meaningful change, in whatever direction. Darling is the politician of order, sameness and continuity. His real sense of purpose is derived from a grave concern that nothing should change and that any change that does occur would be for the worse. He is a conservative. Not a conservative in the sense of David Cameron or George Osborne, for both of these men are radicals, profoundly committed to a genuine restructuring of society in favour of high-born men and their families. For Mr. Darling, the danger of Scottish independence is not so much its concrete effects, but what it would signify more broadly – a rupture, new horizons, possibility and roads not yet travelled. Mr. Darling’s sense is that such things must be avoided. His belief in Britain is, we might say, realist – Britain exists because it must. Britain must remain, the New must be suppressed.
In his speech at the launch event for the Better Together campaign, Mr. Darling explained all of this perfectly. The speech, of course, was replete with the ridiculous non-sequiturs beloved by New Labour speechwriters, the statements intended to be profound but that are instead so broad that no reasonable person would dispute them (‘I believe standing together with our neighbours is a positive good’). It was in the course of explaining the purpose of the Better Together campaign however that Mr. Darling really let the cat out of the bag. The Unionist campaign, he said, ‘will make sure that the patriotism of the quiet majority will be head alongside the voices of the committed few’. Note the choice of words here. What are pro-Independence Scots charged with? Commitment. It is the commitment of the pro-independence campaign that frightens and appals Mr. Darling. The enthusiasm (understood in its classical sense as possession of a passionate belief), the sense of purpose and openness to the opportunities created by new horizons – these are the things that bring out the dread in an Alistair Darling. For, where will all this passion lead? We don’t know, and that for Mr. Darling is the problem. With Britain we know what the future looks like, it looks exactly like the past. Who could forsake the nice warm feeling that comes with being sure that tomorrow will be just the same as today – no matter how disappointing today was.
Going further, what does Mr. Darling see as the main problem with the world today and the real reason why independence would be a bad move? ‘Things are tough at home…Times are uncertain…The world is complicated’, he warns us again and again. The ‘last thing we need are more areas of uncertainty, instability and division’. Independence, he suggests, is ‘a gamble’. Again and again, in this vein, Scottish independence is ruled out because it overturns our confidence that the future will look exactly the same as the past.
For some in the independence movement, Mr. Darling does seem to be onto something, so they spend their time convincing Scots that nothing will indeed change if we become independent. They accept the conservative premise of Darling’s speech and query only the conclusions. In this sense, the independence campaign becomes a mere mirror image of the Unionist one. A more radical and honest approach is needed. Fighting the battle over independence on the terms set by Darling – who can best prevent change? – is a death-knell. We need to turn this perspective on its head and ask more penetrating questions that can actually provoke a debate about what will change in an independent Scotland.
Rejecting the conservative approach of both Unionists and ‘official’ Nationalism means doing a couple of quite fundamental things. Firstly, it means asking exactly what the great legacy we are being conscripted to rejoice in and defend amounts to. If you are one of the Scots without a job or a decent job, or in sub-standard housing, or who suffer or see people in your community suffer from alcohol dependency, or drug abuse, or violent crime, or you recoil at seeing Scots sent off to invade other peoples’ countries with alarming regularity, or hate the presence of nuclear weapons in Scotland, then why would you not want things to change? There are, unfortunately, many Scots who have nothing to lose to whom the idea of a gamble on a better future probably seems attractive. There are many more for whom the conviction that things will change in definite ways is a positive good.
More fundamentally, an honest and radical independence campaign will revolve around our ability to actually create enthusiasm for the New. In the 20th century, this is what politics was about. Hopes for emancipation and liberation ruled the day. The future was to be welcomed precisely because it was indeterminate, it would be different. It is only really in the 21st century that politics became the art of making people afraid of the future. It is in this atmosphere that figures like Mr. Darling thrive. It is that atmosphere that we have to challenge.
To that end, there have been some more encouraging developments. The setting up of National Collective, a platform for artists and creatives committed to Scottish Independence, points in the right direction. Artists have a particular responsibility and opportunity to make us less fearful of the future and less reverent about the past. We need more openings like this one in order to challenge the atmosphere created by men like Mr. Darling and to engender a response that goes beyond the defensive realism of some at the top of the independence movement.
The good news is that such a movement is possible, is on the verge of breaking out and that it can win. Only the most defeatist and cautious could look at the Better Together campaign and think that its peculiar blend of bland aphorism and fairytales about modern Britain make the task insurmountable. There are almost two years of campaigning to go and the polls can shift quickly, but they can’t shift on their own. Scots are uncertain about independence – it is the best way to respond to this uncertainty that is currently up for debate. Some would look to re-assure Scots that independence wouldn’t change that much. Others will try to harness the uncertainty, challenge it and transform it into one part of a movement towards a future not yet determined.
At the end of the speech to launch Better Together, Mr. Darling – perhaps sensing the acutely miserable tone of everything to that point – addressed himself to something he called the ‘better future’ he sees for Scotland within the United Kingdom. We shouldn’t be fooled by this – Mr. Darling, stricto sensu, doesn’t believe in the idea of a future. For most of us, the word future implies something apart, something we don’t know yet – it invokes in us a sense of alterity, of difference. For Mr. Darling, this is not what the word means. For him, the future is just an extension of the past, it is the present projected into infinity. Want to know what Mr. Darling’s ‘better future’ for Scotland looks like? It’s easy, look outside your window, read your newspaper – it looks exactly like that.
On top of everything else, the campaign for Scottish independence is about reclaiming the alterity of the future, the not-yet, from the colonialists of the present. It requires us to admit to the possibility that things will change in ways we don’t fully understand. Most Scots realise, despite what they are told by ‘reassuring’ Nationalists, that Scottish independence would be a bold step. If it is to be successful, the independence campaign needs to reclaim that idea rather than disavow it. The future will be different, and we want it to be.