Scotland’s man of destiny fluffs his big night

In the debate, Salmond tried but did not succeed in dismissing some of the practical obstacles which troubled doubters who might otherwise sign up for an independent Scotland. In other words, he blew it

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And Salmond lost...
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Tom Gallagher
On 6 August 2014 11:11

Last night’s 2-hour debate between Alex Salmond, the Scottish independence chieftain and Alistair Darling, the understated and cerebral general on the pro-Union side, was long  billed as a decisive encounter in the 30-month long campaign that will culminate in a referendum on 18 September.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) is very much in touch with the times in one key respect. It believes presentation trumps substance in this age of media imagery and spin. Much effort has been invested in presenting Alex Salmond as a man of destiny capable of transforming Scotland.

‘Yes for Scotland’  even announced that a coach had been hired to instruct this already supremely self-confident politician about how to come over as the man of the hour. In the end, he came over as a curious mismatch, a cross between a jokey and avuncular Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and a slightly menacing Richard Nixon.

There was confidence that he would eclipse the cautious and moderate Alistair Darling who some find it hard to imagine had been a stalwart of the radical left as a law student at Aberdeen university in the 1970s. Salmond, the perpetual rebel, tried but did not succeed in dismissing some of the practical obstacles which troubled doubters who might otherwise sign up for his cause.

He offered no answers about the currency Scotland would have after leaving Britain. He hoped that what one audience member dismissively described as the belief that ‘it would be alright on the night’ would suffice: ‘We will take the pound as it belongs to Scotland as much as England, it's our pound!’

Of course, Scotland can hardly be prevented from retaining the pound whether the rest of the UK wished it or not, but it would mean vital financial matters remaining in the control of the Bank of England. It is hard to see why the dislocation that will leave no community unaffected is quite worth such a puny end result.

On how a workforce that was a tiny fraction of the present UK one could guarantee the pensions of an ageing population, he was also short on hard facts. But he exuded an unshakable reassurance.

His confident demeanour did not falter even when he asked Darling to account for claims supposedly from the No side that independence would force Scots to drive on the other side of the road or that aliens from outer space were more likely to overrun the country.

He wasted precious minutes seeking to make petty points like these in a bid to wear down or confuse Darling. At times his opponent seemed fazed by the surrealism of it all. But Darling was dogged and quick on his feet, evading most of Salmond’s snide put-downs.

He told him that gags, guesswork, and blind faith were not good enough when he needed to present a coherent blueprint for a sovereign Scotland.

Darling missed an opportunity to put Salmond’s romanticism about the future, and his air of resentment about the present, into the context of  a tacky 19th century-style nationalism that had few answers for Scotland’s current needs. He might also have made a more positive case for the Union as a long-term success story that enabled Scots to enjoy greater material well-being and security at home while playing a bigger role in the world.

Instead, the Union was given the limited function of being a comfort blanket that kept the big bad wolf away from the Scots. 

Darling played his trump card on the currency well but was reactive when taunted by Salmond about the number of Labour voters who had switched to the Yes side.

Food banks and nuclear weapons were several times presented by Salmond as evidence of the warped priorities of the Westminster government  which remains in charge of defence and foreign policy as well as social security.

Salmond plays to the alienation of many lower-income Scots who equate their own unfulfilled lives with the assumed bankruptcy of the state that they are part of.

Sometimes Scottish dissatisfaction comes over as comic as when two audience members complained about Scottish bank notes being refused in London taxis and broadcasting in Gaelic being sacrificed at the expense of pensions.

One audience member even demanded of Darling if he had a Scottish address.

These sour and slightly ridiculous Nationalists have been reinforced by new converts who are swayed by a populist narrative of arrogant and irresponsible rule.

They are disinclined to wonder whether nationalists, who were unable to conceal their parochial obsessions last night, will really be better  at the everyday tasks of governing  which in the end will decide whether people can evade hunger and want.

But there are not enough angry thrill-seekers among the Scottish electorate to swing the result Salmond’s way. Crestfallen supporters on the premier pro-Indy blog ‘Wings over Scotland’ were rueful over their chief’s performance.

There was a palpable sense from some bloggers here, and elsewhere, that they needed to rely on their own campaigning prowess in the six weeks remaining. Salmond  was too mercurial or bound up with his own ego. Over on his own twitter account, Jim Sillars, the veteran left nationalist who had long drawn attention to such character flaws, maintained a grim silence.

Salmond looks set to  try and  regain the initiative by offering pre-referendum wheezes, such as raising the wages of public sector workers; civil servants have been ordered to return from holiday to prepare for such announcements.

But this marathon campaign now matches alert suspicious Scots against evangelical ones ready for a glorious voyage over the freedom  seas. A lot of people who could have ensured a majority for the Yes side now rather resent being taken for granted by Salmond and his allies.

They have grown allergic to the cheap fixes, the accusations of lack of patriotism, and the vagueness about the shape of a nationalist-dominated Scotland which characterise the Yes side.

In other words, they have become allergic to populism, the belief that a few individuals can look into the heart of a nation and thus single-handedly decide its fate for years to come.

Another debate will follow on 25 August where perhaps a more disciplined and less discursive Salmond will step forth. But this one  suggests that he is more likely to see out his time as a quiz panellist on afternoon television shows than as the 21st century Caesar building a brave new Scotland.

Tom Gallagher is the author of Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis (Argyll Publications, 2013). Manchester University Press will publish his next book, Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration Through Monetary Union, in September

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