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1 December 2023

Alistair Darling was an unflashy hero of the kind we need

Rather than the pursuit of personal glory, the late chancellor was motivated by a desire to serve the public good.

By Chris Deerin

Nothing can ease the pain of losing a much-loved husband and father, but if Alistair Darling’s family has seen any of the responses to his passing I hope they will have provided a little solace.

The loss of a senior and significant public figure always brings with it comments from the political bubble. Some are of course warm and emotional, from those who knew and liked them best, and perhaps shared a political party or persuasion. Some feel a little platitudinous.

There have been no platitudes following the loss of Darling. If there has been a uniformity to what has been said, this is evidently because the former chancellor inspired the same sentiments across politics and beyond. Intelligent, insightful, principled, decent, humble, approachable, dryly funny (as our mutual friend, the journalist Euan McColm, accurately puts it, Chic Murray-droll) – you might summarise all this as the very epitome of what an MP and public servant – and person – should be.

Two peaks of Darling’s career stand out. The first is his steerage of the UK economy through the dark days of bank runs and collapses in 2007-08, a task he performed with integrity, good judgement and perceptiveness. The second is his leadership of the Better Together campaign that persuaded a majority of Scots to support staying in the Union during the 2014 independence referendum.

The latter was not always a pleasant or straightforward task. Looking back, one can see that Alistair Darling was exactly the right individual for the job. He had the necessary heft from his management of the financial crisis. He was very Scottish, but wore his identity lightly – no need for tartan or hammy, tear-stained speeches or aggression towards those on the other side of the argument. He was rational, factual and considered. He left the showbiz flummery and nastiness to Alex Salmond, who was anyway better suited to both.

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The problem facing the No campaign was that it had to defend something that existed in reality. A 300-year-old Union with a complex track record offered up plenty of ammunition for those who wanted to leave. Colonialism, wars, capitalism, Thatcherism, austerity – choose your weapon, fire it in tarnished old Britain’s general direction, and generally hit the target.

The Yes arguments were harder to rebut. That many of them were nonsense, based on over-inflated statistics and rhetoric, went without saying. But you were also, much of the time, aiming at smoke. There was no track record, no reality to measure facts against, merely claims and boasts that could shift and change with the polls, and that played well with a sympathetic audience that at times took on a religious fervour. The same would be true a few years later when the UK voted on Brexit. That which exists is easier to attack than that which doesn’t.

For this exacting task, Darling could have been hand-tooled in a factory. His calm demeanour kept things grounded. He maintained it, and his sense of humour and perspective, even when it appeared that Yes might just win a shock victory. If, in public at least, there was something of the phlegmatic civil servant about him, this served Scotland well in an otherwise fevered, shouty climate.

Politicians, especially towards the end of their career, think a lot about legacy. How will the history books regard me, if they regard me at all? Where will I rank? Will I be remembered fondly?

You can go at things like Boris Johnson, taking a view of yourself as a latter-day Winston Churchill, intending that weighty tomes will be written about you, taking their place on the shelves beside those about your hero. You can think you are a great man.

You can be like Salmond, who has always seemed driven both by a sense of his own greatness and an unbreakable belief in the cause of Scottish independence. You can be Nicola Sturgeon, who seemed to put the pursuit of independence above the less exciting demands of providing a school system or an NHS that were fit for purpose.

Each had their talents, but each will be remembered as much for their failings and their failures – perhaps more so – than they will be for their successes, which were largely ephemeral and sometimes downright damaging.

No one is today talking of Alistair Darling’s pursuit of personal glory. He didn’t aim for the sun and fall to Earth when his wings inevitably burned off. He served unflashily and at times reluctantly, and made decisions based on factual analysis and detailed consideration, in what he thought were the best interests of the British and Scottish people. He kept his head. People enjoyed working with and for him. He was always a pleasure to spend time with – enlightening in conversation and fun at parties. He loved, and was loved by, his family and friends.

That’s a legacy worth having both as a politician and as a human being. The popinjays always pop. Which would you rather be?

[See also: Britain was lucky to have Alistair Darling]

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