Even as UK chancellor of the exchequer during a period in which the economic excrement not only hit the fan but concealed its whereabouts, Alistair Darling never received the kind of attention he is now receiving. He may once have been just about holding the UK economy’s reins as the various financial services galloped into the debt-ridden present, but Darling was never the centre of national media attention to the extent he is now. But then again, perhaps his current role as chair of the pro-Union Better Together campaign merits the focus. After all, he is, to all intents and purposes, the man tasked with defeating the pro-Scottish independence side at this month’s referendum.
Just look at the volume of praise which came Darling’s way after he bested his arch-rival, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish independence campaign Alex Salmond, in the first televised debate between the two earlier this month. One pundit was moved to write that ‘the Union is not yet safe but it is safer than it has been at any previous point this year’. As many observers saw it, Darling, with his Big Book of Facts close by, was able to expose the shallow, ill-thought-through nature of the nationalists’ case. To Salmond’s appeal to Scottishness, and vague gestures to some sort of currency union with England (even if his side won the referendum), Darling responded with waspish putdowns, and grim, stat-packed prognoses for an independent Scotland’s future. Where Salmond appeared slightly clueless and light on substance, Darling seemed in-control and semi-authoritative. He had found the chink in the nationalists’ armour: that their case was based on little more than a feeling.
But on Monday, when the pair faced off again, Darling came off far worse against Salmond’s combination of belligerence and urbanity. The gnashing of teeth among the pro-Union commentariat was audible; Darling had let everyone down. ‘Darling, billed in the past as a solid if unflashy old pro, knew his lines, but the delivery was often poor’, wrote a Guardian columnist: ‘Curiously, the former chancellor’s strengths first time round (chiefly currency) appeared hackneyed and weak.’ In The Times, a similarly plaintive refrain sounded: ‘This, Mr Salmond said, is “our moment… our time”. A simple declaration of infinite possibility: “let us do it now.” It capped a forceful, winning performance by the first minister. By the end of the evening, Mr Darling’s repeated concentration on the risks of independence began to feel a little weary, a little frayed, a little stale.’
Others noted how ‘agitated’ Darling had become, how flappable this supposedly unflappable fellow now was. An academic in the Herald pointed out that Darling’s problem was that ‘he does not have the immediate instincts for solidarity and struggle which would have let him take advantage of the many open goals that Alex Salmond left’.
In effect, went the pro-Union advocate’s sigh, it’s not me, Darling, it’s you. You’re not charming enough, not popular enough, not politically good-looking enough. All of which must have been familiar music to Darling’s burning ears. As a ‘Tory source’ told the Daily Mail back in December, senior figures on the pro-Union side were anxious about Darling’s lacklustre campaign. ‘[Darling] is comatose most of the time’, whispered one source. Another senior parliamentary party figure chimed in, saying Darling was ‘useless’ and ‘not a very good communicator’.