Gina Davidson: Mindless jibes no way to run debate

Alistair Darling has as much right to be heard as Jim Sillars. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Alistair Darling has as much right to be heard as Jim Sillars. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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SAY what you like about former chancellor Alistair Darling – and boy was there a lot said on Tuesday, most of it not fit for a Loretto lad’s ears – but he’s got every right to raise the prospect of how Edinburgh may be affected by the result of the independence vote.

It seemed to be forgotten by those too ready to shout “Project Fear”, “scaremongering” and “why don’t your hair and eyebrows match?” that Darling has for some 27 years represented Edinburgh in Westminster (boo, hiss/hurrah – delete as appropriate) and may well have some concerns for his home city in the event of a Yes vote, which, as head of the Better Together campaign, he is actively fighting against.

So here’s a list of all the reasons you may wish to close your ears to his warnings about Edinburgh’s financial district becoming a wasteland in the event of a Yes vote: he was chancellor when the banks needed bailed out and therefore austerity is all his fault; he was privately educated; his great-uncle was a post-war Tory MP in Edinburgh; to top it all off he is a lawyer – and we know what they’re like.

And here’s a list of reasons you may think he’s worth listening to: he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Secretary of State for Scotland, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Secretary of State for Social Security; held all sorts of other positions within the Treasury; and he has agreed with the Scottish Government’s plans for a currency union (gotcha there).

But then why not write off a man with all that experience just because he’s suggesting something you might not like to hear?

Of course he may be wrong to suggest that independence will be worse for Edinburgh than the banking crisis, but he may be right and perhaps his experience of dealing with these institutions tells him that. After all, every debate around the referendum is as speculative as trying to guess the killer in a Nordic noir television series.

Let’s look at things as they stand. Not one financial institution or business has emphatically declared that it will quit Scotland – and that, for many, means an Edinburgh HQ – with the loss of thousands of jobs in the world of finance and wider if there is a Yes vote.

What Standard Life, RBS and others have said, quite obviously, is that they may have to reconsider their future plans in Scotland if a Yes vote changes the way they can do business – and as most of that business is south of the Border, it might well be in their interests to move there.

And let’s not pretend, like Jim Sillars, that they won’t do this because we all know how much of a pain it is to move house. These are massive businesses, not a family of four. They can move in the blink of an eye – and if staff won’t go with them, they’ll say goodbye.

It is completely within the bounds of reason that they will leave. And that will be to the detriment of Edinburgh, which was left reeling from mass redundancies in this sector and is still bracing itself for more to come as banks continue to restructure. In particular, if Standard Life were really to go, then the job prospects for hundreds of young people in Edinburgh will become massively reduced.

Then, of course, there’s the knock-on effect. Less business for lawyers, accountants, which might even have an impact on student numbers. There will definitely be an impact on the housing market – prices may fall, which will be good news to many, but if no-one is buying because of lack of confidence in the job market it makes no odds – so property firms may also shed staff. Demand for social housing could well shoot up, but there will be little being built as building firms head somewhere more profitable. Dear God, even the tram usage could be affected.

But of course none of that may happen. And even if some firms go there could well be many new businesses which spring up in an independent Scotland to replace them. There may even be a whole lot of job creation within the new Scottish Government, which should benefit Edinburgh, but may not as it would probably be fairer and more democratic to move government departments to other parts of Scotland. Certainly, becoming the capital of a newly-independent country could be very exciting.

No-one can say that won’t happen should there be a consensual uncoupling from the UK. And perhaps if the currency union is a non-starter and Scotland has to have its own, then a whole new government-owned bank could be established. As I said, with most of this debate, it’s all maybes aye, maybes naw.

But that’s not a reason to blank either side or to carefully weigh up what is being said without declaring someone’s opinion null and void because you disagree, or because you think they’re after a seat in the House of Lords.

Perhaps we should take some inspiration from the debate between Jim Sillars and George Galloway on Newsnight Scotland last week. They didn’t agree, but they let each other talk, and they most obviously held each other in a reasonable degree of respect.

Surely Alistair Darling, Blair Jenkins et al deserve similar?