by Kevin Meagher
Alastair Darling has many qualities. He was an effective minister, a mainstay throughout Labour’s years in power and as Chancellor, he steered the economy through the worst recession since the 1930s, leaving behind a growing economy in 2010. He is widely respected and admired. But as a campaigner, he makes David Moyes look like Jose Mourinho.
He is so ill-suited to leading the cross-party campaign to galvanise Scots behind the simple proposition that they are “Better Together” with their kith and kin in the rest of the union that the No campaign against Scottish independence looks set to snatch defeat from the jaws of what should, on paper, be an easy victory.
Yet a vote for independence is now a real possibility – with a poll last weekend putting the Yes campaign just three per cent behind the No campaign, a once unthinkable prospect. (To put this in context, a poll last November had the No camp leading by a margin of 29 per cent).
This is a calamitous situation with the polling numbers now starting to reflect what is all too evident to anyone watching this referendum battle unfold: The Westminster class has badly underestimated Alex Salmond.
Frankly, it has paid too little attention to Caledonian affairs in general in recent years, wrongly assuming the devolution settlement of 1998 was the end of the line as far as Scottish nationhood goes. This has left opponents of independence with a strategic problem. There is simply no equivalent Scottish figure now able to make the case for retaining the Union with the same panache Salmond displays in trying to break it up.
David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the UK and leader of the most swivel-eyed pro-Union party in British politics, can barely open his mouth on the subject without sending undecided voters flocking towards the independence camp.
Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, southern English and middle-class are clearly deemed surplus to requirements and have the good sense to stay out of it. Labour’s Scottish Leader, Johann Lamont, is tough and said to get under Salmond’s skin, but she is a provincial figure in comparison.
So Gordon Brown was wheeled out this week to exploit his residual cache with Scottish voters. (Indeed, it is often overlooked that Labour actually increased its share of the vote in Scotland in 2010) warning about the potential threat to state pensions if Scotland votes for independence.
What we are left with, then, is a hideously mismatched fight. In one corner stands Salmond, the apex predator in Scottish politics. Pitted against him are Labour heavyweights of yesteryear, the hated Tories and the minnows of contemporary Scottish politics.
This gaping lack of a credible current figure to take the fight to him is killing the No campaign. Moreover, the greater guilt for this state of affairs belongs to Labour since Scotland is electorally and, perhaps, culturally, the party’s backyard, (with three of Labour’s six prime ministers born there).
Yet since the late Donald Dewar left Tony Blair’s Cabinet to become Scotland’s initial First Minister, no-one of similar standing has followed in his footsteps. None of the outstanding Scottish Labour politicians of this generation have thought the job big enough to forgo a career at Westminster. In so doing, they send out the signal that the Scottish Parliament is a second best option; essentially making Salmond’s argument for him.
Things may look more nuanced north of the border, but from here it looks like no-one has laid a glove on him for months. The chorus of co-ordinated warnings in recent weeks about investment and jobs being threatened if Scots vote for independence makes it sound like Private Fraser from Dad’s Army is running the show.
Yet the bleaker the claim, the more Salmond’s open, optimistic face seems to absorb the negative energy channelled against him. Last month, he saw off the unsubtle threat from George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to be part of a currency union with the remainder of the UK.
His performance on that evening’s Newsnight was a masterclass in turning what should have been a nightmare interview into a rallying counter-attack, parrying the move as “bluff, bluster and bullying.” The No campaign’s best shot bounced straight off him.
Now, with only months to go, would a change of tack towards treating Scots like adults be a better idea? Rather than histrionics and claims of impending cataclysm, would a reasoned appeal to self-interest work better in persuading Scots that the status quo is preferable to a leap into the unknown?
Ed Miliband and the Shadow Cabinet are in Glasgow on Friday, promising the start of a fightback in the run-up to September’s poll. But all this would be an awful lot easier if Salmond faced a home-grown adversary worthy of the description.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut