It’s not numbers these men need but a moral compass

It’s not numbers these men need but a moral compass 
by Alex Bell


The longer we go the less we know. What is true of life applies in spades to the referendum. Last night that ignorance was embodied by two men who only really know they don’t like each other. People on TV told us that the debate between Darling and Salmond signalled the start of the real campaign – if so, god help Scotland.


Alistair Darling knows that a currency union is a weak point for Yes while Alex Salmond knows that Darling is exposed on social justice. Points were scored and small victories claimed but what either knows of our future appears to be diminishing.


The story of the campaign is how No have become the nationalists and Yes the social progressives, but neither figure last night is comfortable in their new roles. Darling wriggles in the confines of the patently absurd argument that Britain is great but Scotland a bit rubbish, while Salmond can’t fully commit to the role of visionary.


It makes no sense to argue that Scotland is an economic failure (in comparison with England) but better off the in UK. If the union worked, then Scotland would not need a permanent subsidy, as asserted by No. Yes’s line stretches credulity that you’d want the levers of the state only to hand them back to the Bank of England, as any currency union would mean. 


Victory for both camps therefore lies not in these contradictions but in the ability to champion the unknowable aspects of the future. It is in the ambiguous, grey areas of hunch and hope that the people look for leadership.


To recap – the UK can’t afford the NHS or pensions on current levels of taxation. This is the stuff of daily debate in London. However, when the UK travels north, it magically acquires a cloak of perfection. Yes must strip that fantasy away and expose the crippled body beneath. The problem is that no EU state can afford these things. That’s the risk of staying in the UK, but it will remain a risk under independence.


The curse for Yes is that the moment to become a state came along just as the accepted model of the western democratic state was falling apart. Salmond tries to offer certainties just as Cameron and Miliband do in the UK context, that everything will be all right, when no man can be sure of that. We live in a time of flux – a point the debate failed to reflect.


Salmond’s currency woes stem from the Euro crisis which made that union toxic on the doorstep. Darling’s reverse on social justice arose from the financial crash and the botched bail-out. Both men are victims of global financial forces neither could control, yet both must project on to this chaos a sense of order. The financial fates makes fools of us all.


Salmond needs to embrace uncertainty – nothing in life is neat but we all know that great things come from a bit of guts and vision. Darling, however much he may feel he’s winning and needs no boost, should lay his cards on the table about the difficulty of talking about social justice but delivering that in the British economic model. It’s not numbers these men need, but a moral compass. Give us a purpose beyond the trash of finance and the nation yearns to follow.


At the heart of the unionist case is a fatalism that Salmond must expose. To the problems of the 21st century, No offer a 19th-century answer. The days of the old state are over, both for Darling and Salmond. The burden falls on the first minister to start imagining a new world. A hard task, but as the national reaction of disappointment to the debate has shown, we are ready for something new.