Quotes and Notes: Nicola Sturgeon v Alistair Darling at COSLA Conference

Photo by Cosla

Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister for Scotland, arrived at the COSLA conference in St Andrews to talk about independence.  Alistair Darling, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and head of the pro-union Better Together campaign, came to make his case for Scotland remaining in the U.K.

Both Mrs. Sturgeon and Mr. Darling want a better Scotland; however, Mrs. Sturgeon began, “We have different ideas of how to achieve that.”  The conference was on local government.  “Local government is a central element to good government,” she said, “and the interests of people who receive services from local government are best served by a Yes vote.”

Mr. Sturgeon believed that Scotland is best governed when national government and local government work together — by national government, Mrs. Sturgeon added, “of course I mean Holyrood.”

She said: “We’ve just passed the 34th anniversary of the 1979 devolution referendum.”  That referendum failed, Mrs. Sturgeon explained, “due to an unfair 40% rule,” which required 40% of the electorate for approval.  Mrs. Sturgeon said members of the audience who were “long enough in the tooth” would remember the denigrating experience of pre-devolution, and that none would argue the Scottish Parliament, established in 1999, has proven to be “anything other than an extremely positive development for Scottish local government.”  Whatever happens in the future, she said, “We’re not going back to the bad old days, before Scotland had a parliament.”

In pre-democratic Scotland, local government was always central, Mrs. Sturgeon said, mentioning the “three estates” — the clergy, nobility and burgesses, or the town commissioners.  Mrs. Sturgeon also recognized the historic significance of the venue, explaining that “the Scottish Parliament once met in lower parliament hall here in St. Andrews, ostensibly to avoid the plague.”  She said local government takes place right next to Scots Law in the history of the country, and is “part and parcel of what makes Scotland, Scotland.”

She spoke of “ending unnecessary ring-fencing” and the “top-down approach” of government, which, she said, is very much a hangover from the pre-devolution settlement.  She argued that Scotland could achieve a better, fairer settlement than the one Westminster handed down.  “The key levers are held in Westminster,” she said, adding that “too much of our joint work is reacting to Westminster decisions that Scots don’t agree with.”  She said this is bad for local government and democracy in Scotland.  She added, “The bedroom tax is a particularly acute and harmful example of the point I’m making.”

Mrs. Sturgeon said that “part of the responsibilities of local government is to pick up the bins, but not to react to divisive Westminster policies.”  She argued that “the devolved administration has been successful, but we can go further with independence.”  “Government shouldn’t be about reacting to rubbish policies,” she said. “Independence should not just be about transferring power from Westminster to Holyrood, but should also be about transferring power from Holyrood to local government.”  She said “independence is about empowering local communities and people.”

“The role of local authorities should be entrenched in a constitutional settlement,” she argued, “This is mainstream in developed democracies, such as Denmark, Germany, Sweden.”  She explained that the referendum debate is “not a competition about who is more Scottish, but it’s a contest of ideas.” “What do we want for the future of our country and the people who live here?” Mrs. Sturgeon asked.

Mrs. Sturgeon concluded her remarks: “I hope you believe the case for Yes is a positive one, and an attractive one… The ideal arrangement for Scotland is something only independence can deliver…The referendum is the privilege of this generation, unique in this country’s entire history.”


Alistair Darling took the stage.  “This campaign is both cross party and non-party,” he said. “Scotland is better and it is strong as part of the united kingdom.”  “As part of the electoral system in local government across scotland, local councilors are used to working across parties,” he said.

Mr. Darling explained that” there is a profound disagreement on what Westminster is doing with economy”, but he emphasized that the referendum “will profoundly change this country forever.”  “This is most important decision that any of us will make in any of our lives,” he said.

Mr Darling wanted to see facts over the next eighteen months before the election.  “There is a paper that has become public,” he said, referencing the leaked paper by John Sweeney, “There are issues issues in there that we do need to debate.”  He said the paper “fundamentally questioned what the country can do,” adding that “this is the second example in some months, six,” he thought, “of the Scottish government saying one thing in the public and quite another in private.”  “The first instance was on legal opinion on Europe that in fact doesn’t exist,” he said.

“People need to know these facts,” Mr. Darling argued, “when making the biggest decision of their lives.” “We live in a time of profound social and economic change.  I want my kids to grow up in a country with a modern, positive view and wide horizons.”  “There is a simple question,” he said, “In or out of the UK?  But it is a more complicated debate.”

Mr. Darling explained that there are “two entirely different concepts: independence and devolution,” as well as different models for devolution.  He said the current system has “important measures for overlapping power, but they aren’t static.”  “For example, he said, “Scotland might have responsibility on income taxes that it doesn’t have at the current time.”  He also said his party is putting forward propositions for a new devolved settlement.

“The point is devolution is a process,” Mr. Darling said, “Independence is a complete break to what I think will be a deeply uncertain future.”  He argued that “rather than painting the English as allegedly so different than us that we want to turn our backs on them, it’s a domestic battle, for us, Scots.”

“Surely this is a time we need to look at what councils do and what they are for.  Scotland is not Holyrood,” he said, “It looks different from the Highlands and islands and different from the Borders.”  He added, “There is a role cities can play in economic success” and that “further devolution can work.”  “I believe that we can be a country that punches above our weight,” Mr. Darling said, “but working as part of the UK we get other advantages too.”  He listed examples such as a share of university research money, part of a bigger NHS, and green energy.  He said, “Questions have to asked wherever you are.  For example: in relation to green energy, yes we can do things here, but how much could we do with access to a free market?  We now are part of a single market.”

He said John Swinney’s paper was important; the population is getting older, and paying for the elderly will peak about the time North Sea oil will start to decline.  “In his paper,” Mr. Darling argued, “Mr. Swinney said that the absorption shocks will be spread across the U.K., whereas with independence, this will fall on the shoulders of a population of six-million.”

“If what’s on offer is entering into a currency union, that’s not independence,” Mr. Darling emphasized. “I happen to believe that having one’s own currency brings risks that haven’t been explored yet.  There are problems you face in local government that we face in all of Scotland, and all rely on the U.K. as a whole…If you want to do anything, it involves spending money.”

He said, as a lawyer, like Mrs. Sturgeon, he is “innately skeptical of a written constitution.”  “Are there are the resources to back it up?” he asked.  “Independence isn’t possible without money available, for example, to meet what is needed in a modern education system…We need to know what the risks are, what the disadvantages are.”  Mr. Darling reiterated that, “This is a big decision, one that will effect the future of our country for decades, maybe centuries to come.”


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