Those looking for vilification of Osbo can stop reading now. Though the poor schmuck has so far made a pigs ear of the best job he’ll ever have, it is a former holder of the post that is the subject. Alastair Darling is no dumbo. Often articulate, verging on the urbane, he cultivates the air of a professor of jurisprudence, perhaps so his practiced gravitas is received with the same earnestness as his delivery. Had he put similar effort into humour, he memory as the man who led our Bank Rescue Brigade charge into fiscal hell might be more fond. Instead, he was voted Britain’s most boring politician two years in a row
He has turned in respectable performances in tough jobs—for example his tenure as Minster of Transport (2004-8). Leave aside a (shared?) distaste for the Tory policy that created our rail network—it was Transport Secretary Cecil Parkinson who first formally committed the Thatcher government to privatise it but Brian Mawhinney only achieved it in 1994. Ropey franchises and the collapse of Railtrack after the Potters Bar tragedy saw the whole system come under critical public scrutiny. Given a brief to “take the department out of the headlines”, this is exactly what Alastair Darling managed, pushing though Transport Bills and creating Network Rail out of Railtrack’s ashes.
Less creditable has been Alastair’s lecture this month at Glasgow as Leader of the Better Together Campaign. I say that with every attempt to be non-partisan about it. Now published as a paper, in it, he starts with laudable intentions to put “the positive case” for the Union.
“It is that (positive) side of the debate I want to concentrate on. So I will not speak today about the weaknesses of the nationalist argument.”
But he can’t help himself; within a page of adhering to this, he lapses into:
“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”.
Rather a betrayal of intentions and not particularly edifying. But let’s make allowances for passion subverting (yes, even in Alastair’s case) objective judgement and ask: how well do his more tangible arguments and examples hold up?
On page 6 he launches into The Economic Case for the Union, kicking off with a table that shows Scotland’s exports—roughly £68bn, of which £46bn were with the rest of the UK. “It’s hard to imagine a world in which Scots cannot move with complete freedom to take up jobs elsewhere in the UK“he opines. Hmm, has he never heard of the EU’s free movement of labour, goods and services? Also, he implies that our 67% of exports going to England, remaining part of the same country is the sole sensible choice.
Then how then does he explain Canada? Of their $427bn in exports, $337bn (or 79%) go to their much larger neighbour. Is Alastair arguing that independent Canada is being foolish and the sooner their provinces become the 51st through 63rd states of the USA, the better? God bless Canerica, land of the free(ze)?
A main thesis is “For our young people, being part of something bigger means bigger opportunities.” Damn straight. But how can he claim that opportunity lies with the Union when the present UK Government—under fire from its own xenophobes—is making the UK the brat of the EU and may even withdraw from it? If we Scots want to be part of something bigger, why not the outward looking multicultural EU when England throws repeated hissy fits about immigrants and always argues London’s (vs Scotland’s) case?
On page 5 Alastair inserts a second chart. Apparently Scots exports to the EU stagnated in the last decade, while that to RoW/rUK grew. Trouble is, the Global Connections Survey 2011 he cites doesn’t back up his chart. Indeed, delving into the data, exports to the EU (Table 3) grew from £8.9bn to £11.0bn (or 24%) in the 4-year period to 2011, while exports to rUK grew from £41.5bn to £45.5bn (only 10%). Both contradict Alastair’s chart and his thesis about the relative importance of rUK exports.
In the same period, whisky exports jumped from £2.3bn to £4.0bn (or 74%)—with booming markets across the fast-growing BRICs. He may not have intended the irony but Alastair’s xenophobic UK could take a lesson or two in thinking big from the Scots and their global reach, rather than the other way round.
Then on pp 8-9 come the weirdest stuff of all—three charts showing Scotland to be richer than all but London and the Southeast and an assertion that the integration of Scotland into the larger UK economy laid the foundations for that. In 1776, that was undoubtedly true. But today? It takes a particularly blinkered type on unionist to ignore the close co-operation that is the norm (both here and in Europe) and expect malicious interference.
On pp 10-11, we turn to Financial Services, rightly highlighted as a key sector of the economy. We’ll gloss over the faulty job that Alastair and his Irn Broon predecessor did as Chancellors in policing the FSA and the out-of-control banks they were supposedly regulating. Alastair becomes quite stern and dominie-like when discussing alternatives to the present Union setup: “Borders matter, not only for highly regulated business like financial services. An international border is more than just a line on a map“, he lectures.
Agreed entirely. But isn’t it just such borders that allow the Isle of Man or Jersey to run rings round HM Treasury and have outrageous per capita incomes from financial services? Has anyone asked the Jerseymen or Manx why they all oppose seizing Alastair’s ‘advantages’ and becoming fully part of the UK?
These examples are too close within in the Union you say? OK, let’s try the Cayman Islands where millionaires and offshore banking both do very nicely, using a mutually convenient link to the UK. On the other hand, none of Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Macau or Singapore have any particular relation with either the UK or the EU. But they all offer financial services and all rank near the top of the world’s richest nations on the planet. How can they possibly do that if Alastair’s right?
Changing gear to universities, Alastair has a valid point that Scottish uni’s attract 15% of Research Council grant funding, which means that £450m would be at risk, although we do already contribute 60% of that ourselves. But he then goes on to list achievements, including an international reputation bringing 30,000 students from 180 countries to Scotland and satisfaction ratings higher than England’s. Why would the Union be the only way to support, let alone improve on, such glowing statistics?
On macroeconomic issues, he argues:
“Economic union allows us to specialise in the things we are best at and to take full advantage of the benefits of an integrated UK economy.”
Tell that to highly skilled workers at Rosyth losing major Royal Navy sub repair contracts to Devonport in the 1990’s (for pure political reasons). We already have different legal systems that undermine his argument for simplicity and—unless either country were to get stubbornly obstructive—could probably be better harmonised as independent states as both might take any such obstacle seriously for once.
And any panic about the pound is assuaged by simply using it. Many countries and the entire global oil industry (on which 14 countries with twice the US population depend) use the $ US and are therefore as dependent on the currency’s fortunes as the US itself. If using the £ sterling works for the affluent Jerseymen or Manx, why not Scots? On the other hand, 15% of the Scots economy (i.e. oil) is already denominated in $ US, so moving on to our own or another’s currency would be neither rocket science nor any real barrier.
Taken as a whole, this paper is disappointing—not because I instinctively disagree with his premise (that Scotland would be better off remaining in the UK) but because he makes a poor fist of marshaling positive arguments to back up his beliefs. Alastair and I agree this is a vital discussion. I have no doubt of his sincerity. But I had relished such a senior and experienced figure propounding substantive points to which I would need—assuming I could assemble them— hefty rebuttals. It cannot be just the faithful talking only to the faithful or one side denigrating the other as anti-Christ unbelievers. This oeuvre fails such tests.
As a man who made the trains run on time (even if the banks did get away with murder on his watch), Mr Darling easily has the stature to articulate the case for the Union and to expect the other side to treat it as a major contribution to the debate. In this, his paper fails, falling foul of a partisan interpretation of facts, ill-disciplined charts that fail to carry any point and a rather rickety use of statistics. It is more the musings of a chancer than a Chancellor.