The truth about Darling

'Darling may be miserable, but the trajectory of his career will keep anyone with a long memory laug

The cabinet did meet here last week.

I know the BBC interviewed people in Birmingham who said things like: “I’ve just seen James Purnell in Corporation Street – I recognised him at once.” But that was just a ruse by the security people.

Local hotheads wanted to hold ministers hostage until our demands were met. I was up for it. As I proved during the poll tax years, a couple of cannon on my roof will repel all comers. But in the end I settled for taking in the sandwiches and eavesdropping.

Alistair Darling, I can reveal, is a worried man. Not so worried his eyebrows have turned grey overnight, but seriously worried.

Don’t blame the credit crunch: blame the Outer Hebrides. Yes, they are beautiful islands: on a sunny day the colours of sea and sand rival the Caribbean. More than once I have heard people in Barbados say wonderingly: “Look at that view. We could be in North Uist.”

But a holiday there is a serious business. Swings are chained up on Sundays lest children imperil their immortal souls by playing. Nor does the local television station help. Last time I was there, peak-time viewing was a programme in Gaelic about a poet who emigrated to Canada and then died. That sort of thing wows them in Stornoway but can have done little to lighten Darling’s mood.

So when I saw those atmospheric Guardian shots of him beside the stones of Callanish I knew there would be trouble. “The worst economic conditions in 60 years”? Blame the rain and the midges.

It is harder to excuse the journalist who interviewed him. Decca Aitkenhead allowed Darling to paint a misleading picture of his career. He had drifted into student politics, we learned, as an independent over refectory prices.

Later he joined Labour because they “just seemed to reflect my outlook on life – you know, that we were better working together – fairness, helping everyone to get on”.

In fact, Darling began in the Trotskyite International Marxist Group and later became a hard-left leader of Lothian regional council. There he threatened to refuse to set a rate or even agree a budget. So alarmed was the Labour establishment that it sent George Galloway to reason with him.

Galloway reminisced to the Daily Record: “I well remember Red Ally's denunciation of myself as a ‘reformist’, then just about the unkindest cut I could have imagined.”

Darling may be miserable, but the trajectory of his career will keep anyone with a long memory laughing through the recession.


You must know Martin Niemöller’s poem:

When they came for the penguins,
I did not speak out;
I was not a penguin.

Its truth has been re-emphasised by events in Telford.

Last month I reported that two environmental campaigners dressed as penguins had been thrown out of the town’s park. They were told they needed a criminal record check and risk assessment to hand out leaflets.

That was not the half of it.

Soon afterwards the Shropshire Star reported:

Council staff on the lookout for paedophiles have been ordered to stop and quiz any adults found walking in Telford Town Park without a child, it was revealed today.

Anyone who wants to go to the park but is not accompanied by at least one youngster will have to explain why they are there.

The Star sent a reporter to test the policy. He was approached and questioned within 30 minutes.

Telford & Wrekin Council has since backed down. “We made a mistake and I’m sorry,” said its leader.

But the moral is clear. Defend penguins’ rights: you could be next.

Jonathan Calder has been a district councillor and contributed to speeches by Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. These days he prefers to poke gentle fun from the sidelines. He blogs at Liberal England