–Neil Walker, University of Edinburgh
[Cross-posted from the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum Blog]
Last week’s first televised debate of the referendum campaign revealed few surprises of tone or content, even if the outcome disappointed pro-independence hopes of a momentum-building surge in support. As expected, Alex Salmond concentrated on the core message of political self-determination, and the prospect of the new Scotland embracing a model of social and economic solidarity that London is increasingly unable or unwilling to deliver. With equal predictability, Alistair Darling for ‘Better Together’ insisted upon the precariousness of the pro-independence position on currency, placing this at the suggestive centre of a wider narrative contrasting the vulnerability of a fledgling Scottish polity to the reassuring solidity of the existing British state with its broader institutional shoulders and deeper pockets. It was not, truth be told, a good night for the ‘ vision thing’. Salmond seemed somewhat less energised and less sure-footed than usual in his portrayal of the promised land, perhaps inhibited by the artificial format of the TV duel and by the strong pre-debate expectations that his quick wits and populist style would win the day hands-down. For his part, Darling, true to form, simply chose not to let his political imagination off the leash. He stuck to a narrow brief, defending the status quo, or at least a soft focus version of it, and concentrating his fire on the supposed gaps and shortcomings of the ‘Yes’ case.
For Better Together, as has so often been the case over 30 months of campaigning, what was not said was more interesting and more revealing than what was. One particularly deafening silence, much commented on in the immediate aftermath, surrounded Darling’s refusal, despite many repeated invitations from his opponent, to offer an explicit endorsement of the proposition that Scotland could be successful as an independent country. In an episode that rapidly descended into Paxmanesque political pantomime, and which hardly flattered either party, Darling’s discomfort was that of someone torn between a desire not to offer a succulent soundbite to the ‘Yes’ campaign (‘Darling makes case for independence’), and an anxiety not to appear dismissive of the potential of his fellow Scots.
There was, however, another telling silence, less apparent, quite unremarked in post-debate commentary, but ultimately of deeper significance. On more than one occasion, Darling referred to Scotland as ‘part of something larger’. Yet when he did so, he omitted to give that larger entity a name. This might seem trivial. After all, everyone knows where and what he was talking about - who the ‘we’ are who, in his view, are and ought to remain Better Together. And so, perhaps, we should read nothing more into his silence than a (reasonable) assumption of the self-evidence of his object of desire. Yet that would be too simple an explanation. For Darling’s reticence can also be seen as a mark of reluctance, even of unease. It betrays a sense that the state we are in is best left understated, so to speak; and that it might be to the symbolic disadvantage of the ‘No’ campaign to apply a label to the entity whose preservation they seek.
An appreciation of why this is the case takes us to the heart of the question of Scotland’s constitutional future, not just over the vital final weeks of the referendum contest but also in the years to come. Read the rest of this entry…