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30 November 2023

Britain was lucky to have Alistair Darling

The late chancellor lacked any shred of personal pomposity despite his abundant talents.

By Andrew Marr

There was a kind of grim symmetry. As the inquiry into the Covid pandemic turned its attention to Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson, the death was announced of a very different figure, who had steered Britain through a very different crisis – though one almost as serious.

It is hard to imagine a politician more different from the performative, self-indulgent antics of Johnson’s Downing Street than Alistair Darling. Here was a man who listened intently, respected experts and institutions, but who brought a bracing dose of scepticism to every conversation. 

In public he could seem dryly austere. In private he had a biting, sardonic wit. His wife Maggie, a warm and gregarious working-class Scottish journalist, kept a table overflowing with food and laughter which became an essential stopping off place for anyone in the know passing through Edinburgh.

In his tribute Tony Blair said: “I never met anyone who didn’t like him.” In fact, all across Scotland there are Scottish nationalists who will never forgive Darling for leading the Better Together campaign in the 2014 independence referendum so effectively. Even towards the end of his life, cut short far too early by cancer, he was pursued in the street or shops and shouted at abusively.

Darling shrugged it off. He lacked any shred of personal pomposity but he was a tough guy. Once he was certain of his position, he would follow through unrelentingly and was happy to dispute with other very strong characters, notably the former prime minister Gordon Brown. 

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[See also: In 2024, Labour must offer hope]

He began as a natural rebel who had loathed his boarding school, Loretto in Musselburgh outside Edinburgh, and the pious self-congratulation of the upper-middle class of the capital. As a long-haired and bearded left-wing councillor, he could be found debating passionately in Edinburgh hostelries such as the Jinglin’ Geordie in the city’s Fleshmarket Close. But he was never quite the “bearded Trot”  identified by Neil Kinnock – that was another councillor – and, desperate to put an end to the long Tory years of Thatcher and Major, he was an early and convinced convert to Blair’s New Labour.

Darling had a ferocious work ethic and underlying seriousness that saw him take job after job below and then into the cabinet. In a party that didn’t understand the world of finance, he quickly came to. He took on one complex economic portfolio after another – work and pensions, transport, trade and industry, as well as Scotland, chief secretary to the Treasury and then chancellor. His civil servants respected him: until they came to adore him.

So Britain was lucky when, as the financial crisis hit in 2007-08, it had Alistair Darling at 11 Downing Street. Brown, with whom he had an occasionally difficult relationship, leaned on him and thoroughly respected him. Later, when he took on leadership of the pro-Union campaign in Scotland he did it with a sense of foreboding and even weariness, but felt it was a duty that simply could not be evaded.

Like earlier generations of Labour politicians, but not necessarily all current ones, Darling had a strong and important hinterland. His family home on the Lewis coast was his haven, and he had great love for Scottish art and music; he read widely and attentively and was at the centre of a close network of Labour Scots that stretched from the Hebrides down to Essex.

Political journalists are sometimes told that we should have no political friends because that is somehow corrupting. To that extent, your correspondent must be a bad journalist because my life was greatly enhanced by Alistair Darling’s friendship. Always leavened by humour, he had a strong streak of native Caledonian pessimism. Often, talking about some political or economic problem he would stop me, give a hard stare and explain: “Andrew, it is actually much worse than you think…”

The final word goes to a friend who wrote to explain why Darling was one of his favourite politicians: “The apparently grey man – grey because of his civility, proportionality, intelligence. Save me supposed charisma. Give me this set of qualities every day of the week.” As the Covid inquiry rolls on – bang on.

[See also: A blunderer in high office]

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