Opinion - Scotland

2007 - 2022

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.


Comments (19)

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  1. Andrew says:

    I disagree with a lot of this. That’s not to say I differ with your politics, more that I differ from your tactics.

    If Scotland is to become independent (which we both want) then it can only happen if at least 51% of voters turn out to vote for it (or 51% of the turnout) this means that the campaign needs to mobilise voters who, among other things, support NATO, vote for unionist parties and currently have major concerns about independence. I think that an overtly socialist strategy (which I assume it was you are proposing) is a mistake because it is likely to enthuse and mobilise people who have already made up their minds rather than converting new people. I think the NATO decision is a policy decision for SNP, but the reasoning for it is obvious (they feel they take for granted the people who already oppose NATO, but polling suggests a majority support membership so they want to target them).

    As things stand the campaigns have to do different things. The unionists need to keep their current supporters (hence a cautious approach) while we need to bring in new ones. I keep thinking of my parents, who aren’t socialists or radicals, but they are the sort of people who will decide this referendum. They have voted Labour since Thatcher became Tory leader, and then in 2007 they switched to SNP and have done so since. They don’t have any enthusiasm for the coalition government, but also don’t support independence. Whether or not their politics are in line with our own is irrelevant as their votes, and hundreds of thousands like theirs, are the kind of votes that the YES campaign needs to win. I don’t know about the National Collective (but will look into them) but I’m not sure how many unionist voters they will sway.

    For the Better Together campaign Darling is a good public face, his record as Chancellor is seen to be reasonably successful and he is articulate and unmistakably Scottish. and has undoubtedly been through the political wars. He should quite rightfully be a target, but remember that unless a large number of people who currently vote Labour also vote for independence then we will lose.

    Unfortunately when you strip it down a referendum is a numbers game. The YES campaign needs to be engaging and visionary, but it also needs to connect with people on their own political level rather than the one we want them to have. I think SNP are doing a good job, early signs of Yes Scotland are that they’re establishing a good campaign too. I agree that there is space for something more radical, but it has to complement the current strategy rather than clashing with it.

    1. Callum McCormick says:

      Cheers for the response, Andrew

      On NATO – I think this is the ultimate case of a minority concern being blown up as if it actually resonated with a vast number of people. Do the majority, or even a significant section, of Scots think the country would somehow be *less* safe if it wasn’t a member of NATO? Is this policy change – one that so fascinates insiders and ‘high-info’ viewers like me and you – really going to convince an undecided Scot of the value of independence? I doubt it, which begs the question of why the SNP leadership is spending so much time trying to push it through.

      On the question of the broader campaign – I certainly do want a socialist agenda to be at the centre of the campaign, but I don’t expect this to be done by the SNP and nor should it be. I certainly am not advocating any kind of maximalist agit-prop (for the moment…), but I do think, in the context of crisis and austerity, a strong left flank is not only politically important but I think would make a yes more likely.

      On Darling – obviously I disagree about his record, although, as I suggest in the article, he does indeed get a good press. This is despite the fact that he was Chancellor when the British economy absolutely tanked and, more significantly, was a close political comrade of Gordon Brown at exactly the time when all the policies that led to disaster were being implemented. The idea that because he oversaw one utterly lame stimulus package and the ramshackle nationalization of a bank that he is some kind of economic guru on a par with Paul Krugman only shows how desperate political culture in Britain is. Then again, I suppose compared to the present incumbent at the Treasury, he looks almost omniscient.

      1. Barney Thomson says:

        “Do the majority, or even a significant section, of Scots think the country would somehow be *less* safe if it wasn’t a member of NATO? ”

        Don’t know about the majority but I certainly do.

        The recent martial activities of NATO and its constituent governments has involved the destabilisation and invasion of resource-rich nations who are not members of the club. OK, this is all probably at the behest of the USA who are fast running out of the hydrocarbon reserves that they have relied on for so long.

        An exposed independent Scotland, rich in oil, water and alternative resource potential could be a juicy target. Better to be inside the tent pissing out, at least until we are ready to piss in our own pot.

  2. Andrew/Callum,

    My feeling is that in a stright forward Yes/No vote the result would be close: 47/48 Yes to 53/54 No. There is an element – probably the dominant element – in the Scottish middle class which will never vote for independence. Its political, social and constitutional instincts are intractably conservative. The goal then has to be to mobilise the largest possible working class turn-out at the same time as winning over the minority progressive elements in the Scottish middle class. This can’t be done by triangulating the life out of the independence project. We need to couple a radical vision of a new Scotland with a radical critique of the British state. Andrew, you buy too readily into the idea of an ‘everyday voter’ who sits comfortably in a fixed and permanent ‘centre-ground’. These are myths. We should be prepared to advance something considerably more bold than anything the SNP leadership is currently offering.


  3. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

    Modernity: how our politicians shun it. Smug practitioners of their trade of peddling variations on the past, laced with many a sugary nip of the old Scotch Myth, they keep the petty provincial achetype well burnished. Unionist, or Nationalist, the same fug of the moribund surrounds them choking anything innovative, edgy, exciting, cool. Can we seriously expect anything other from such? Seemingly we can not. But, by default, allowing the “Scottish Idea” to be appropriated by this pedestrian clique we have turned the precious cause of Scotland’s future into just another party political toy. Ideally, there ought to be a National Movement free from this. One that brings together, what elsewhere would be called, the intelligentsia; presuming, that is, we do not conform to the horny old archetype and deny our country actually possesses one.

  4. Dave Mcewan Hill says:

    Disagree almost entirely with the so very clever and completely naive article. Everything the SNP is presently doing is effectively undermining the banal unionist arguments and none of it in any way undermines the essential core independence position .
    Just a well we have some clued up people in charge.

    1. Callum McCormick says:

      I’ll take the clever thing as a compliment, though perhaps this isn’t how you meant it. The article is not ‘naive’, although it is anti-realist, which is perhaps what you really mean. I am totally in favour of countering Unionist arguments – the problems arises is when the SNP (and others, this isn’t an anti-SNP thing) allow Unionists to set the terms of the debate entirely. I’d suggest reading my previous article in regards to your last comment and being thankful for the “clued up people in charge”. In case you hadn’t noticed, the clued up people in charge are, at the moment, making a bit of an arse of it.

    2. Michael Cormack says:

      ‘Clued up’..yeah Newsnet Scotland is full of people like you Dave. Complacently believing that the SNP policy of Independence as ‘no change’ (we’ll still be British??) will win the fight for Independence, despite all the evidence (voting intentions) showing a a moribund and inert support.

  5. Wullie says:

    Darling was a disaster of a chancellor, ineffective, ineffectual and barely on speaking terms with his messianic next door neighbour. An ideal man to front the No campaign.

  6. Rob Pollock says:

    The SNP strategy as I see it is to normalise the idea of independence, and to make the steps along the way as easy and safe as possible for a small ’c’ conservative population. This seems to be working well. During the mostly disastrous Westminster campaigns of the 90s they used PPBs showing someone diving off a board into a pool of cold water with the message ’take the plunge into independence’ or similar. I think they learned from that mistake, and the gradualists are now winning, inside and outside of the party.

  7. George Gunn says:

    Interesting piece, Callum. I think the historical process to independence is underway and nothing the No campaign can say or do can stop that. We may, in all propability lose the referendum in 2014 – although I hope not – but the future lies with the politicising of the 16 year olds who are entering into the civic/public world and are developing their consciousness. They will not be content with a grey future of constant now. Actively participating in referendum, elections, campaigns to make the world better; it is their Scotland which will be in a position to fufill its potential, to be a force for good in the world. Every day the British state becomes weaker. We need to keep the debate going and your contribution, Callum, and the responses to it, does that.

    1. Callum McCormick says:

      Thanks, George, I totally agree with your comments.

  8. David Moynagh says:

    The future that we should be afraid and concerned about is one in which Darling , Cameron and the other dead woods are still remaining.

  9. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

    Callum McCormick refers to the “new” in his contribution. I appear to
    be the only one to comment on that. Interesting, because it is exactly fear of, or indifference to, the new, the modern, that lies behind the image of independence as the opening of a Pandora’s box of scary unknowns. For nationalists it ought to be the opening of the doors on to the bright light of modernity with all the exquisite, frisson charged, hope filled, potentiality that evokes. If, however, independence is something other than that, a Scotland just like the old one but with embassies, then frankly “they” can stuff it.

  10. Dave Mcewan Hill says:

    Can’t be bothered with self indulgent conditional nationalists that will only countenance the kind of Scotland they want.
    We make ourselves independent and then the people of Scotland elect the sort of governments they want to make the kind of decisions that they can be comfortable with. And if they don’t, they elect another government. That’s the way it works

    1. Alasdair Frew-Bell says:

      Independence is merely a means to an end. However, the cultural/intellectual context in which the means is conceived and elaborated is important. In Scotland’s case centuries of imperialistic North Britishness and its attendant mind-games remains to be purged from that context.

  11. Graham says:

    Good article. It’s not intended as an insult but I sometimes wonder if the reassurance that everything will stay the same stems from a lack of confidence of those pushing that line in our/their ability to pull-off significant change – fear of failure. Or perhaps they simply don’t want real change, for whatever reason. To be clear, I’m not questioning the desire for (at least some degree of) power transfer from London to Edinburgh. It’s the intention to use it and how that’s less obvious. This will, of course, be decided by the government of the day, which is subject to change, but the vision of the incumbent government is also very relevant. That’s why I don’t understand the arguments advanced in defence of the change on monarchy and NATO.

    I believe that enough people can be persuaded to vote yes if they perceive the opportunities of independence as being worth the risk. But opportunity is in direct conflict with no change. The Social Attitudes Survey finding of 65% support for independence if £500 per year better is not suggestive of inherent and widespread fear of independence. Neither is it indicative of overwhelming demand for sweeping change, unfortunately.

  12. Fletcher1 says:

    Terrrific piece.

    Whether we like it or not, attitudes to independence are coloured by attitudes to the SNP. The MSM know this, witness the steady stream of calculatedly damaging headlines in (to give just one example) the Herald. Clearly the unionists believe that damage to the SNP’s reputation will weaken support for independence.

    The SNP needs continuing electoral success if it wishes to maintain the quest for independence as a central political issue. It has been pointed out (on this blog and elsewhere) that SNP success at the ballot box depends on a small but significant group of leftist voters – like me – being kept on side. Advocating Scottish membership of the murderous NATO machine is unlikely to do that (how humiliating that I should have to point this out).

    There is a visible chance that the referendum will be lost, and if that is not to extinguish the pursuit of independence for a very long time the SNP must remain strongly electable so that the constitutional question is held perennially in the foreground. We are only being offered a referendum now because the SNP has an overall majority in Edinburgh and can command it.

    At present it seems that the SNP chess game (NATO, monarchy, cuts in corporation tax) looks only one move ahead. Checkmate soon if that continues.

    And I’m somewhat immune to the argument that SNP policy doesn’t matter because they may not be the government of an independent Scotland. Ah – so it will be one of the truly radical parties like New Labour, the Conservatives or the Lib Dems?

    I fear we may be watching the SNP become just another head of the neocon Hydra.

  13. James Morton says:

    We are forgetting of course that utter shambles of a government currently in Westminster. They are now attacking every institution that underpins Darlings status quo. I think the Middle class in Scotland will vote for independence, largely because they are now being attacked in a way that would have seemed unthinkable, even during Thatcher’s reign. the UK government are going to do real lasting harm to the UK and Labour seem content to watch this unfold, without so much as a hint that they would undo the damage done. As the clock counts down to 2014, more people in Scotland will see and experience Plan A as it starts to really kick in. Viewed through that prism, Darlings Status Quo will seem rather odd. Going to be very hard for an Avatar of straw to enthuse about how safe your yesterday was when all your tomorrows are going to be hacked and burned away. That for me is where the uncertainty lies. What are these people going to do now? Can they be trusted at all to govern fairly? I can’t take a chance on those odds – Independence seems the safer bet.

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