Monday, 12 March 2012

Alistair Darling the Real Fool

Of all the last Labour governments' key figures, I must admit to having always had a little bit more time for Alistair Darling, who struck me as a decent, restrained man landed with a very tough job at a very bad time.

The less well-judged his recent forays into the Scottish Independence debate have become, however, the more I find myself revising this view.

There was his bumbling admission that it was "essential" that Scotland should raise its own income tax - arguably leading in part to the confusing and continuing fracas between Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and the Prime Minister, the former having stated the current Scotland Bill would be "a line in the sand" whilst the latter came to Edinburgh pronouncing that there might instead be jam tomorrow. The implicit admission, of course, being that they're ain't no jam for Scotland in the current Scotland Bill making its sombre procession to the Scottish Parliament, where it will no doubt be summarily dismissed by the SNP majority.

Today, Alistair Darling is reported to have attacked - you guessed it - Alex Salmond. For people so apparently keen to make the independence debate not one about "personality", the Unionists - and going by Johann Lamont's speech to conference, Labour especially - sure are doing a good job of invoking the inadequacies of the popular Mr. Salmond at every opportunity.

Allow me to lay out my personal allegiances here. I support Scottish Independence, I am a member of the SNP, and I have serious respect for the First Minister. I am a fairly recent convert to the SNP; I've been generally used to taking a fairly sceptical, cynical view of politicians and political parties.

However, Alex Salmond and the SNP have cautiously won me over. It wasn't too hard, given I was already pro-independence. But I wouldn't have done it if I didn't trust, albeit cautiously, the party and the people running it. Their record over a period of decades says to me, clearly simply and honestly, that they have and always have had Scotland's interests at heart. I do not feel the same about Labour, Scottish or otherwise.

But I take Mr Darling's initial comment as a given - he says Mr Salmond is not "infallible."

This seems a remarkably vapid thing to say. Does he know anyone who thinks the First Minister, or anyone else, is infallible? I am an SNP member and a supporter of the First Minister's overarching aims, but I will never blindly support everything he says and does, and I know no one who would. I was personally rather disquieted at his recent coseting up to Rupert Murdoch, and would hope the First Minister understands that they are the kind of things that could seriously damage the trust he has built up over the years with his rank-and-file, and more than that, the Scottish people too.

However disquieted I may have been, I still see no evidence of foul play - unless you count simply giving an audience to the odious media mogul - and I certainly don't think representatives from either of the three big parties have any right to lecture the First Minister on media relations given the cosiness of successive UK governments to Murdoch's organisation and his rags. Yes, I'm talking to you again, Ms Lamont.

But I digress. The meat of Alistair Darling's criticisms stem from Mr Salmond's support for the Royal Bank of Scotland during the infamous ABN-Amro takeover. Mr Darling said:

"This is the man who wrote to RBS saying he had looked at the deal with ABN Amro and was confident it was good for Scotland. Well, if he honestly thought it was good for Scotland, he's a complete fool because it brought the entire RBS edifice crashing down. So, he does get judgment calls wrong."

Let's talk about this support, and try and qualify it. This is easy. Let's just look at the letter the First Minister sent to Fred Goodwin.

Alistair Darling claims that:

  •  The First Minister had looked at the deal
  • and decided he was confident it was good for Scotland

This is disingenuous at best. Although it is undoubtedly true that the First Minister had studied the deal, all he said in his letter to Goodwin was that he was "watching events closely." Mr Darling then misconstrues this to claim that Salmond told RBS he'd concluded with confidence that the deal was good for Scotland, effectively giving it his backing. All he actually says is that it is in Scottish interests for RBS to be successful - yes, successful in the bid no doubt, given that it was supposedly a great investment opportunity, as testified by the fact that RBS had fierce competition in the bid from Barclay's among others, and indeed, the deal was signed off in the end by no less than the UK Chancellor at the time - one Alistair Darling. Everybody, including him, thought it was all gravy.

But seeing as the deal was in the end a factor that caused not RBS success, but indeed the failure of the bank at large, it could equally be construed from the First Minister's remarks that only continued RBS success would be within Scotland's interests.  

That's disingenuous too of course - but only because the letter was nothing more and nothing less than a relatively innocent "good luck" message from a Scottish First Minister to the CEO of Scotland's biggest bank, in the midst of negotiating an important deal. There wasn't much whiff of a "judgement call" about it, contrary to the former Chancellor's unbecoming negative spin.

Indeed, let's talk about the real judgement calls, leading up to and including this crucial period.

Gordon Brown's beholden policies as Chancellor to the City of London; his light-touch regulation; his judgement that he'd singlehandedly ended "boom and bust". His protege and successor to the job, Mr Darling, took on Fred Goodwin as a special advisor to the Treasury, a capacity in which he remained long after quitting RBS and the full force of the financial crisis had hit.

As aforementioned, but which cannot be stressed enough, Alistair Darling, not Alex Salmond, signed off the ABN-Amro deal as Chancellor. Now nobody is infallible. But if Mr Salmond is a "complete fool", as Mr Darling puts it, what on Earth does that make the former Chancellor, particularly given this incredibly dazzling display of selective memory?

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