At the 80th annual conference of the British Labour Party held in Brighton in September-October 1981, a furious debate on nuclear disarmament was conducted.
The conference was split down the middle between Left and Right: left-wing unions, constituency parties and Left MPs supported unilateral nuclear disarmament, while the majority right-wing unions and party machine supported a nuclear-armed Britain. The most militant voices were raised by delegates from Scotland, where the miners’ union, MPs and delegates were the backbone of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) founded in 1958 by philosopher Lord Bertrand Russell, Canon John Collins and other leading intellectuals and academics.
One of the Brighton delegates from Edinburgh North Constituency Labour Party (CLP) was Alistair Darling, a bearded solicitor who held combative views against Britain’s involvement in the nuclear arms race. He ridiculed the Thatcher government’s propaganda trying to allay public fear of nuclear war, telling delegates: “Civil defence is a con trick perpetrated on the people of this country to gain acceptance of the arms race. [In the event of nuclear war], the army would have the power to hunt down and ferret out subversives — that’s you, comrades.”
The vote for unilateral disarmament was carried overwhelmingly on a show of hands. However, the platform then engineered a card vote, which allowed the right-wing union bosses to swing the vote solidly in favour of maintaining a nuclear-armed army, navy and air force.
In those early years, Darling was a member of the International Marxist Group (IMG), a Trotskyist body led by Oxford University firebrand Tariq Ali. In quick succession it published newsletters called Black Dwarf, Red Mole, Red Weekly and Socialist Challenge. After his encounter with the Fourth International, Darling’s career followed a well-trodden path towards the Right and the Establishment.
The IMG advocated a strategy called “deep entrism”, which Darling adopted enthusiastically: British Labour Party activist, careerist solicitor and advocate (barrister), election to the House of Commons, fervent Tony Blair disciple, supporter of the Iraq War and chancellor of the Exchequer in 2007 when Gordon Brown succeeded Blair.
These days Darling is best known as the chair of Better Together, the campaign group backed by the Conservatives and the City of London advocating a “No” vote in Scotland’s independence referendum being held this Thursday. Labour Party members are furious that Darling, a former long-serving Labour cabinet minister, is campaigning alongside Tory Prime Minister David Cameron to defeat Scotland’s independence bid. They argue that Labour’s message at next year’s general election will be blunted by the “coalitionist” politics of the corporate-funded Better Together campaign.
Last year Darling, MP for Edinburgh South West, spoke to a fringe meeting at the Scottish Tory Party conference calling for a “No” vote. Protesters outside the meeting carried placards, one of them branding him: “The Abominable No Man.”
In the closing weeks of the campaign, the Tories have relied upon Darling, Opposition Leader Ed Miliband and a trainload of 100 Labour MPs to stem the swing of Labour votes to the “Yes” campaign. The latest polls show Scotland’s 4.3 million registered voters will support Scotland’s continued membership of the United Kingdom by 53% to 47%.
At the weekend 60-year-old Darling was so confident that he claimed victory. “We will win, be in no doubt about it,” he said. “I know, because I see the returns every day, and our returns are good.”