Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling was in the isles today to lend his weight to the local group which wants Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom.
Mr Darling, an Edinburgh MP at Westminster for 26 years, launched the “Better Together Shetland” campaign at Lerwick Town Hall.
Chancellor from 2007 until 2010, he was one of only three people to serve in the Labour Cabinet continuously from 1997 until the defeat three years ago, along with Gordon Brown and Jack Straw. His other major roles included Chief Secretary to the Treasury, work and pensions minister, transport minister and Scottish secretary.
He told a good turnout at the town hall that there were now 200 local groups throughout Scotland committed to the Better Together campaign, and stressed the importance of getting the message across to people.
The independence referendum was the “biggest decision that any of us will take in our lifetime,” Mr Darling said, and it would be decided by people the length and breadth of the country.
“The nationalists only need to vote once,” he said,” but on our side I believe that we need to win but we need to win well. We don’t want to get ourselves into a situation with referendum after referendum.”
The town hall audience included people from all sides of the policital spectrum. Tory stalwart Maurice Mullay was joined by former schoolmate Geordie Jacobson, a lifetime Labour party supporter. As Mr Jacobson joked, “you couldn’t get a fag paper between us today!”
Others in the audience included Labour’s Irvine Tait, Gordon Thomson and Susan Bowie while the Liberal Democrats were well represented by the likes of Theo Smith, Beatrice Wishart and Theo Nicolson.
Mr Darling said there were three reasons why he supported the status quo, the first one being jobs. Scotland exported four times as much to the rest of the UK than elsewhere and England was the single biggest customer.
Number two was “influence or clout”, he said. His experience of the EU convinced him that it was the larger countries that called the shots, not the smaller countries.
“In terms of agriculture, fishing and other areas it depends on having clout. Why would we want to give that up? Why would we want to give up that influence?”
The third reason, Mr Darling said, was the emotional and cultural ties between people in Scotland and England.
“Most of us have got family and friends across the border. Remember it was a Welshman who set up the NHS, it was an Englishman who set up the welfare state and it was a Scotsman who founded the Bank of England.
” I don’t think the [2012 London] Olympics changed anything but it brought to the surface something that was already there”
Continued uncertainty over the currency was highlighted by Mr Darling. First the nationalists had wanted the euro, then they said they would prefer to stick with the pound, and now a number of them had suggested that Scotland should look at starting its own currency. That would be absolute madness in the current financial climate, especially in relation to pensions.
The meeting was thrown open to the audience and councillor Drew Ratter, in what was more of a statement than a question, suggested there could have been a third option in the referendum – doing away with devolution.
“All I have seen since 1999 is centralisation,” Mr Ratter said. “There is a real need now that the Better Together campaign starts to talk about what we are going to do next about the weakening of local and regional automony.”
Mr Darling said he preferred the two-answer option – did we want to stay part of the UK or not. Settle that question first and then they could begin discussing other issues.
In answer to an observation by Mr Tait, he said in future the case for the UK needed to be made better. Perhaps in the past it had not been made enough.