Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Big Eck vs. Flipper

So, the big Alex Salmond/Alistair Darling debate. How was it for you? If my experience is anything to go by, I’m willing to bet “frustrating” is the answer.

Frustrating because I heard nothing from either politician that I hadn’t heard before. Frustrating because I felt Darling, true to form, treated the electorate with barely disguised contempt. Frustrating because I felt Salmond missed several opportunities to really skewer Darling and allowed himself to be forced into a corner on the issue that will always be the Yes campaign’s Achilles’ heel -- currency.

I genuinely don’t understand Salmond’s strategy on this matter. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate -- I understand the strategy, but I don’t understand the way he chooses to articulate it. I get that a currency union is the SNP’s preferred option and the one they intend to take to the negotiating table. But really, why is it so difficult for him to articulate an alternative? Why, in the face of Darling’s belligerent repetition of the same question and the growing impatience of the audience, could he not simply have responded “Our Plan A is a currency union, but if the UK Government -- flying in the face of all logic and self-interest, chooses to cut off its own nose to spite its face -- here’s what we will do.” Darling’s jibes about rupees and Panama may have been puerile, but could easily have been swatted aside by pointing to the range of countries that have, at various points in history, adopted another currency without a formal union -- many of them using the pound. Isle of Man, anyone? Because there are, after all, a range of options -- most of which would involve Scotland walking away from all the UK’s national debt.

The silver lining in this cloud is that evidence suggests that few people in Scotland rate which currency we’ll use as their number one priority. (2%, according to a TNS-BMRB poll.) Rather, in focusing so obsessively on this one issue, we’re following the media/Better Together agenda. Politicians and media pundits are interested in these matters -- the average person on the street is more interested in things that affect them directly, like the NHS, jobs and how much money they have in their pocket. These can’t be COMPLETELY decoupled from the question of whether we’ll be using the pound in a currency union, or the pound informally, or a Scottish pound pegged to the UK pound or whatever, but issues like the Bedroom Tax, food banks, the obscenity that is Trident and the carving up of the NHS south of the border resonate far more directly with voters than the issue Darling spent his entire Q&A session withering on about.

While he certainly landed some body blows in terms of issues like London’s plundering and squandering of North Sea oil and the threat of Eurosceptic England dragging Scotland out of the EU against its will, I was rather bemused to see Salmond spending so much time asking Darling about the bizarre comments many of his Better Together teammates have made about the consequences of independence. These include an increased risk of attacks from outer space (Philip Hammond), having to drive on the right (Andy Burnham) and the forced removal of the pandas from Edinburgh Zoo (I forget who came up with that one). The purpose of this line of questioning, presumably, was to make Better Together appear ridiculous and to diminish their credibility. The only problem was, a lot of people would have been hearing these fantasies for the first time last night, coming out of Alex Salmond’s mouth, thereby running the risk of making HIM rather than Better Together appear ridiculous. Still, Darling’s response was laughable. Oh, he scoffed, those were just jokes. What other threats were jokes, then, I wonder? Ian Davidson’s notorious “bayonet the wounded” comments? Peter Fraser’s “England would have no choice but to bomb Scottish airports”? Theresa May withering on about border posts?

Or perhaps the refusal to enter into a currency union? Was that, too, just a joke? You see, when you keep saying silly things, people begin to wonder if EVERYTHING that comes out of your mouth is equally stupid.

What I thought was utterly shocking, and very revealing, was Darling’s point blank refusal to admit that an independent Scotland could be successful -- a point conceded on various occasions by many of his Better Together colleagues. How hard would it have been for him to say “Yes, it’s possible, but I believe we’d be even more successful in the UK”? But he couldn’t bring himself to do it, even with both Salmond and adjudicator Bernard Ponsonby repeatedly pressing him and the audience jeering at him. That speaks volumes about how Darling and those like him really view Scotland.

Of course, the elephant in the room throughout all of this is that the man who should have been debating Salmond, David Cameron, was nowhere to be seen. In failing to step up to the plate to defend the union he believes in so passionately, Cameron actually makes the case for independence more succinctly than anyone on the Yes side: our current political arrangement has delivered a Prime Minister so loathed by one part of the UK that he daren’t show his face lest his unpopularity contribute to bringing the union to an end. Darling, as a backbench opposition MP who holds no actual power, has no authority to promise anything one way or the other. There’s no point asking him about Scotland’s future within the UK because he has no influence on it. He can demand clarity and certainty from Salmond all he likes, but the reality is that we got the monkey rather than the organ grinder last night.

One of the biggest frustrations, for me, was hearing the same old arguments being trotted out by both sides. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been heavily engaged with the independence debate, reading all manner of articles and comments online, watching videos of debates and speeches given by both sides (though admittedly heavily weighted towards the Yes side, given that they’re the only ones who actually engage with the public on a regular basis). The ambition and breadth of original thinking these exhibit leaves the tired old party politics of Labour vs. Tory or Labour vs. SNP in the dust. There’s no doubt in my mind that, if someone like Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation had been in the studio last night making the case for independence, he would have utterly shredded Darling. The reality is that, in their own ways, both Salmond and Darling are fighting yesterday’s campaigns. The real debate -- the one happening online, in town halls and in people’s homes and workplaces -- has moved on from the politicians. It’s not about whether Salmond or Darling is the better debater. It’s not about politicians and their individual personalities. It’s about us.

Biggest laugh of the night? Darling talking about the UK pooling resources and redistributing wealth from richer to poorer parts of the union. The image of money flowing from wealthy Scotland to help out poor, struggling Westminster and the south-east of England brought the house down.

Second biggest laugh of the night? The audience member who declared that she was fed up hearing about pensions and wanted to know about the most pressing issue: what will be done to encourage the spread of Gaelic?

Picture originally posted by Reasons for an Independent Scotland.

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