The English lexicographer, wordsmith and scottophobe Samuel Johnson once said: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Alistair Darling knows exactly what that feels like right now, although he’s got a bit more than a fortnight in which to ponder his impending doom. I’m quite relieved that it’s more than a fortnight away, as it gives plenty of time to learn Morse code so I can check if Alistair is frantically blinking H.E.L.P…M.E…R.O.N.A. during the debate.
Ali and Alicsammin debating is one of those things that Westminster thought wasn’t supposed to happen, like the SNP winning an outright majority in an electoral system Labour and the Lib Dems had designed to ensure that never happened. But that set a pattern, and this referendum campaign has been full of things that were not supposed to happen. The referendum itself wasn’t supposed to happen. Holyrood setting the terms of the vote, the timing, and the question wasn’t supposed to happen. Mass popular participation in the debate and the campaign wasn’t supposed to happen. Scotland responding to a barrage of scare stories and threats with laughter, mockery and ridicule wasn’t supposed to happen. Yes snapping at the heels of the Bet You Don’t Know What We’re Called This Week campaign in the polls wasn’t supposed to happen. The momentum of a Yes grassroots movement that’s bigger and reaches further than any political campaign in modern Scottish history wasn’t supposed to happen.
You’d think, given that there’s a precedent or ten for Scottish things that Westminster thinks aren’t supposed to happen actually happening, that they wouldn’t try and act macho about something that they’re praying won’t ever happen. Alistair Darling must now rue the many days he called on Alicsammin to debate with him, all the while in the belief that Alicsammin would continue to refuse. It’s like the school bully’s nyaffwank wee pal suddenly discovering that the big Bullingdon bully won’t be giein him haunders after all. Now the whole of the school is going to meet up behind the bikesheds at the STV studios and watch him get a wedgie with his pants on fire. It’s a painful and humiliating thing when a wedge strategy goes wrong.
Alistair has a reputation as a calm and dignified statesperson. He maintains this by being remote and distant, and doesn’t do combative interviews, preferring instead a nice wee chat with Jim Naughtie. The calmness of his badger fur is never ruffled. Not once during the entire campaign has he debated with or been interviewed alongside someone from the Yes camp. It’s easy to look dignified when you maintain an aloof aura aw roon, and you’re away in the big important parliament far away in London doing big and important things but have deigned to lower yourself to paddle in the provincial pond in order to tell Scotland how lucky we are to have people like Alistair far away.
But the debate with Alicsammin will teach Scotland the lesson Father Ted tried in vain to teach to Father Dougal. Alistair isn’t far away, he’s just small. And Davie Cameron is a wee dot in the field outside the caravan window, running away as fast as he can.
STV tried to force the issue with a highly reluctant No Comment campaign, which has been refusing to put up speakers for public debates on the grounds that people who are not politicians might disagree with a politician, which is clearly abusive. Eventually STV informed each side that they either put up a speaker or they’d ’empty chair’ them. They should have gone with the empty chair, it would make a more positive case for the Union than Alistair has ever managed. Chairs can at least provide comfortable support, and Alistair’s would be well-upholstered. Furnishings can be claimed for on expenses.
Despite the attempts to spin events as Alicsammin being “smoked out” – geddit? smoked, because Salmond sounds like salmon and no one has ever used that joke before – this is a disaster for the No Sex We’re British campaign, as it’s been well and truly screwed. It’s understandable that Cameron didn’t want to debate. He’s going to lose. Badly. That said, he should still debate. He is, let us not forget, the Prime Minister of Scotland, and this country is currently engaged in a debate about whether or not we want to let him keep his job. It is after all one thing for Westminster to tell us that after independence we can’t have the pound, or EU membership, or the BBC, or defence from invasion from outer space if you believe Philip Hammond the Tory defence minister, it is however the height of inanity to tell us we can’t question our own Prime Minister while we’re still a part of the Union.
If Cameron had debated, expectations of his performance would have been low. Low expectations like if you’d entered John Reid in a humility contest, or nominated the Collected Speeches of Johann Lamont for the Nobel prize for literature, or asked Tony Blair to apologise for Iraq. In order to have the UK media hailing his statemanlike powers and magnanimous grace, all Davie would need to do would be to come out with some meaningless PR mince about family of nations WW2 Olympic spirit Willnkate (don’t mention the helicopter) Harry Potter and 307 years of everything joint except the stuff that gets you stoned. He could, if he had been smart about it, turned it into one of those Great British Dunkirk evacuation style defeats, a defeat but a glorious and heroic one. Except that glorious and heroic aren’t adjectives usually associated with Davie Cameron, unless there’s a “not” in the sentence, and quite often a “useless fucker” in Polish as well.
Instead we’re getting the Labour party’s Alistair Darling as the Tory understudy. That’s really going to appeal to those wavering Labour voters isn’t it. He’s spent the last two years pointing out the uncertainties of independence, even though many of those uncertainties exist only inside his own head, and most of the remainder are uncertain only because the sole body which has the ability to clarify the uncertainty is the Westminster Parliament. And they’re certainly not for telling. He’s now exposed himself to questioning on the uncertainty of new powers for Holyrood in the event of a No vote. Or more precisely, questioning on the certainty that after a No vote Westminster will kick the entire issue into the long grass that still doesn’t get you stoned. Scotland won’t be very mellow about that at all. Alistair’s a backbench MP for Her Maj’s Opposition, he’s in no position to offer any certainties, and the squabbling members of the No We Can’t Agree On Anything Except We Hate Alicsammin campaign don’t provide him with much comfort, no matter how well upholstered his chair. He can’t even be certain about how much bog paper he’s going to need after debating Alicsammin. Probably quite a lot though. But he can get it on expenses.
Samuel Johnson also said “The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!” He was, let’s face it, a bit of a nyaffwank. The only reason the ingrate is famous is because a Scottish guy with more writing talent than Johnson, but a rampant case of runaway cringe, preserved his witticisms for posterity. And his dictionary is pish too. It’s missing the word nyaffwank* for starters. The relationship between Johnson and Boswell is a metaphor for the Union. And that’s pretty nyaffwank too.
But in Alistair’s case the noblest prospect he’s got in store will be the road out of an STV studio, leading to a hole in the ground somewhere where he can hide under a blanket and rock back and forward, wondering why it all went so wrong.
*a flaccid and embarrassing indulgence with no satisfactory outcome which leaves you feeling short changed and annoyed