Alistair Darling: Quiet man who found his voice

The former Chancellor’s victory against Alex Salmond was a surprise to everyone except those who know him
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The unexpected warrior, the sober saviour, the one who steps forward as an ordinary Horatius – that’s how many of us like our heroes served. And there was a reminder of this at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire on Tuesday night when the hopes of a 300-year-old political union centred on just such an apparently dull, grey figure.

Tony Blair mentioned him only twice in a 700-page autobiography. He survived Gordon Brown’s attack dogs and the “forces of hell” unleashed against him during a 1,000-day reign as Chancellor. He was the quiet man of the New Labour era. But Alistair Darling – bookish, silver-haired, dark-eyebrowed – shed his safety-first persona and did what few people expected. He sank – or at least holed – Alex Salmond’s boat.

The script for the televised debate on the referendum on Scottish independence had Salmond’s claymore dispatch Darling as though it were cutting through a teacake. It didn’t happen. Darling’s personal assault on Salmond, and his dissection of the foundation arguments of the Yes campaign, might have had Westminster observers wondering how they never got to see this side of him. And Labour might well be asking itself if Darling can still be a major player.

When there was a possibility that Gordon Brown might be ousted from No 10 in a bloody, fratricidal insurrection, few mentioned Darling as a possible successor. But on this evidence, he could have been a contender. Only for those who know him well did the debate performance – the passion, the humour and the directness – come as no surprise.

Darling’s job as head of the cross-party Better Together pro-union campaign was seen in some quarters as the equivalent of a retirement post. The Tories’ enduring toxicity in Scotland meant that the captain’s role in securing Scotland’s membership of the union needed to go to someone outside the Coalition. But to whom? Darling was seen as trusted, uncontroversial, worthy. Salmond saw him simply as someone he could easily get the better of. How wrong that has turned out to be.

The former Chancellor’s victory against Alex Salmond was a surprise to everyone except those who know him (Illustration by Lauren Crow)

Although Scotland’s politicians have effectively had two years to rehearse everything that came up in this week’s debate, Salmond managed to look surprised that Darling could insult him. Darling said that an eight-year-old would be confused that while Scotland would have the Saltire as its flag, and Edinburgh as its capital, Salmond couldn’t be sure what the currency would be. Perhaps encouraged that Darling wasn’t sounding at all like a dull accountant-in-residence, the audience weighed in with its own hobnail boot attack on the First Minister. In a theatre, with a twisted script, and with an unexpected saviour, it did what all audiences do – it applauded.

Maybe the trained advocate inside Darling, the one who studied law at Aberdeen University and was admitted to Scotland’s equivalent of the Bar in 1984, realised that Salmond vs Regina was a case he simply could not afford to lose.

In the face-off with Salmond, Darling repeated what he’s said numerous times over the past two years: that he, like everyone in Scotland, was proud of his country and wanted it to prosper. He challenged the emotional rhetoric of the Yes campaign by saying “patriotism” was not what was at stake. For Darling, there isn’t a choice to be made between being Scottish and remaining part of the UK, being British. “I’m proud to be both,” he has said. “It’s a badge of honour to be both. It’s part of what I am.” That sense of belonging to a treasured club that he doesn’t want to leave was evident when he told the audience in Glasgow: “In six weeks we’ll make the biggest decision we’ve ever made. And there’s no going back. There will be no second chance.”

The ability to change, to surprise, has always been with Darling. He is the great-nephew of a Tory MP. He’s a public schoolboy from the upmarket Loretto school in Musselburgh. At Aberdeen he headed the student council and was reportedly a supporter of the International Marxist Group, a UK grouping of Trotskyists. If there was an early expectation of his future establishment role – Darling is one of only three people who served continuously in the Cabinet throughout both the Blair and Brown governments – it doesn’t show in the photographs that capture a revolutionary passion as a long-haired student banner-carrying firebrand.

What needs to happen to turn someone from Trot supporter to trade secretary? For Darling, according to those who know him, his time as a Lothian Region councillor, where he helped defy Margaret Thatcher’s rate-raising laws, was the time he realised that in mainstream politics he could change things that needed changing.

He became an MP in 1987, and, allowing for boundary changes, has held his Edinburgh seat since then. Responsibility came quickly. He was Neil Kinnock’s opposition home affairs spokesman within a year, and became Tony Blair’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury in 1996. When Blair won in 1997, Darling was in the Cabinet with the same Treasury brief. Cabinet posts followed at Social Security, Works and Pensions, Transport; he became Secretary of State for Scotland in 2003, and Trade Secretary in 2006.

In 2007, when Brown took over from Blair, Darling was given the job Brown had no intention of abandoning. When the office of the Lord High Treasurer was established in 1707 after the Act of Union, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was No 2 to the First Lord of the Treasury, and Brown simply turned the clock back 300 years. Although nominally Chancellor, Darling was subservient to Brown, and his luck worsened on another front. He ended up presiding over the longest and deepest recession in Britain since the war.

Although Brown may have regarded him as a bench-warmer for the more trusted Ed Balls, Darling was hardly a Whitehall naïf and is now widely seen as  having survived subplots and Macbeth-like connivings to emerge with a positive reputation that may not have been expected when Brown’s government was sinking under the pressures of the banking crisis.

One episode in 2008 highlights both Darling’s ability to survive and his determination simply to call it like it is. In the family croft on the Isle of Lewis that he and his journalist wife Maggie still escape to (they have a son and daughter), he gave an interview in which he went spectacularly off-message, saying that the global economy was at risk of its most severe downturn in 60 years. Accurate? Sure. Acceptable to Brown? God no. Brown’s briefing machine went into overdrive. Darling later said it was “like the forces of hell being unleashed on me”.

Despite the satanic goings-on between Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street, Darling still made some key decisions – the part he played in refusing to allow Barclays to rescue Lehman Brothers incurred the wrath of Hank Paulson, the US Treasury Secretary. In retrospect, the idea of the UK government bankrolling an American bank in trouble when US banks were running a mile now seems insane, but it’s possible that Darling’s record on banking regulation – there wasn’t enough of it – leaves him vulnerable to attack from Salmond when they go head to head again on 25 August.

After the revelation that was Darling this week, the case for the entire UK being able to watch is all the stronger.