Today's Sunday Post column in full.
Just say No.
It's not exactly a seductive slogan is it – or even a new one. "Just say No" didn't pass muster in the "war against drugs" thirty years ago. But now it's back. Only this time, it's No to Scottish independence. And the lucky naysayer in chief looks set to be…. Alistair Darling. No descendant of the family liberated by Peter Pan, Darling does at least have one "evergreen" feature. Those improbable, jet-black eyebrows. He also has baggage.
Labour's last Chancellor of the Exchequer either exudes calm authority or reminds you of the wild overspending days at Westminster. Or possibly both. In 2010 Darling was one of only three folk in the Cabinet since Tony Blair's 1997 victory. "A big boy done it and run away" could never work for Al. When Labour lost in 2010 he did concede; ''We rather lost our way. Rather than recognising the public were rightly concerned about the level of borrowing, we got sidetracked into a debate about investment over cuts." Al – if that was an apology you'll need a few party tricks to make the "no" campaign sizzle. And waggling the eyebrows disnae count.
On the other hand, there's now a rose-tinted glow about the Good Old New Labour days. Hard-working young people could expect good jobs and retirement at 65 not 77. The Euro was a strong currency. Banks were as safe as houses. Fred the Shred was still a Sir. And all the while, Alistair D with his comforting, sensible manner was in charge of our cash. Now though, things are very different. The Tories invoke Labour's "spendthrift" behaviour at every opportunity, but the constant harking back is wearing as thin as Britain's lack of economic progress. In any case when it comes to Scotland Dave, Al, Nick and Ed have a common "enemy."
Alex Salmond. Lively, larger than life, and perceived to be a big spender than Bruiser Broon ever was. Of course Labour can point to the massive number of schools and hospitals quietly built on their watch and the projects they hatched but the SNP helped over the line like the M74 extension, the upgraded M80 and indeed the Commonwealth Games. But scrapping road tolls and prescription charges meant every Scot got a direct, immediate and highly visible SNP government bung. "No upfront tuition fees" has come to symbolise Scotland's commitment to the equalising power of education. Meanwhile the SNP's early "Not a penny more" warning to the ill-fated Edinburgh trams proves Alex Salmond's team can also spot a turkey.
So ex-lawyer Al may find it hard to rattle former oil economist Lec over past or present spending. Where the cautious and ever so slightly boring MP for Edinburgh South West can hope to score is over uncertainty. The more the SNP trade their cheery projection about the wealth of an independent Scotland with David Cameron's gloomy one, the less punters believe either one. The only thing Scots do know in spades is that things do not "only get better." They do sometimes get a lot worse --suddenly and without warning. Folk are still trying to digest the fact that Greece – a sunny climate, continental landmass and different currency away – can still wreck our economy. That's scary. Big hitherto booming economies are wobbling the world over. And even though little economies like Norway are forging ahead – and even ex-basket-case Iceland has a BB+ credit rating – small country success doesn't get enough coverage to provide a widely recognised beacon of hope. In any case, those nations are already independent, we're not. The idea of constitutional change in a recession can easily feel like moving house in a hurricane. That's the spectre Alistair Darling will have to conjure up. Is he the best person for the job? I'd have chosen someone younger, perkier and Holyrood not Westminster-based. The young Jenny Marra perhaps. But then Labour has always played it far too safe.
Of course, the "lucky" leader hasn't been formally announced yet and Labour say there won't be a single leader pretending he or she has all the answers. It'll be a joint effort with big hitters from all three unionist parties, from both sides of the border and from inside and outside politics – the aim is to contrast Everyone Saying No with One Man Saying Yes. Perhaps that is making a virtue of necessity. The "No" team just don't have a single personality large enough to take lumps out of Big Lec. Unless you count unpredictable Gorgeous George Galloway. Since disgraced firebrand Tommy Sheridan backs independence, sparks could fly if those two managed to elbow their way back into the McLimelight. Aye and pigs might fly.
Serious issues in serious times mean serious leadership choices. But serious doesn't have to be "utterly predictable." Let's hope Mr D has a few surprises up his sleeve – or it'll be a long two years till 2014.