Allan Massie: Parliament poorer for Darling loss

Former chancellor Alistair Darling. Picture: PA
Former chancellor Alistair Darling. Picture: PA
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ALISTAIR Darling’s decision to leave the Commons does a disservice to the health and vigour of British democracy, writes Allan Massie

Alistair Darling’s decision to leave the Commons at the end of this parliament in May comes as no surprise. It’s understandable. He has been there and done it, serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer through the most severe crisis any British chancellor has experienced since the 1970s, when Denis Healey had to seek help from the International Monetary Fund.

Darling’s swift action when faced with the imminent collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, with its potentially disastrous knock-on effect, prevented a complete breakdown of our banking system.

Since then, having left the front-bench, declining to be in Ed Miliband’s shadow Cabinet, he has led the Better Together campaign to victory in the referendum. He may quite reasonably think he has done enough in public service and be looking forward to following a different course while he is still active and comparatively young. Yet his decision to leave the House of Commons is to be regretted.

We all recognise that parliament and politicians are not held in high esteem today. This, by the way, is as true of Holyrood as of Westminster. Contempt for both is frequently expressed, and is reflected in the rise of Ukip, a party that is seen as being an outsider. Nobody should pretend that this state of mind is healthy or good for democracy. It isn’t.

The history of other countries offers unhappy examples of the consequences of feelings of contempt for the political establishment and parliamentary institutions.

Such a mood in Italy immediately after the First World War paved the way for Mussolini’s Fascism. In Germany it led to the collapse of the Weimar Republic, in France to the debacle of 1940 and the replacement of the Third Republic by Vichy’s État Français. The outcome here is unlikely to be as cataclysmic, but it won’t be happy if public respect for politicians and parliament is not restored.

No doubt there are many reasons for the present unhappy state of things. The disconnection of parties from the electorate is one. In this context the surge in membership of the SNP should be welcomed even by people who will never vote for that party.

But another reason is the apparent tendency of those who are elected to parliament to see this as a mere job, a career move rather than a calling. You get elected, you may serve in government, then you move on to something else. The pattern is now common. It confirms onlookers in the belief that people are in politics for what they can get rather than for what they may give.

The quality of parliament, or at least of the House of Commons, suffers. There are fewer former ministers, with experience of government, on the back-benches. They have mostly moved on to something else. True, many of them are to be found in the House of Lords and their contributions there may be useful. But the Commons is the more important house and it is weakened by the absence of former ministers.

It wasn’t like this in the past. In 1931 Winston Churchill was left out of the National Government. He was in his middle fifties, not much younger than Alistair Darling is today. He had first been a junior minister in 1906. He had been home secretary, first lord of the admiralty (a very important post then), colonial secretary and chancellor of the exchequer. Now he was condemned to the back-benches. Today, a politician in his position would probably have decided he had done, and had, enough.

But Churchill remained active in the Commons throughout the eight years when he was out of office even though his own party was in government. We may be thankful that he did.

Or consider the last two Liberal prime ministers. Asquith was dislodged by a parliamentary coup in 1916. He lost his seat (East Fife) in the “Khaki Election” of 1919. He was then 66. He might reasonably have called it a day. But he fought and won a by-election in Paisley, returned as Liberal leader to the Commons and in 1923 took the important decision to support the first – minority – Labour government.

His successor as prime minister, David Lloyd George, the first architect of the welfare state and organiser of victory in the First World War, never held office after he was removed in 1922. But he chose to remain active in the Commons for more than 20 years.

Now it is, as I say, rare for those who have held the high offices of state to return to the back-benches of the Commons, and be available to speak with the authority that derives from experience. There have been only a few exceptions in the last half-century: Ted Heath and Denis Healey for example. Some might add Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, though neither was ever a senior minister. But all four were men who were listened to, and who were worth listening to. They helped to keep the Commons a serious place.

The role of the elder statesman is a valuable one. Alistair Darling would have played it well, and it is a pity he has chosen to decline it.

In contrast, Ken Clarke, though considerably older, will contest the next election even though his long ministerial career is at last over; and he will do so in order to be in the Commons to argue the pro-European Union case in the next parliament. One hopes too that former prime minister Gordon Brown will choose to remain in parliament and take a more active role there than he has done since losing office.

For the simple truth is that senior politicians who apparently think that they have no useful contribution to make if they are no longer in office do parliament and public life a disservice. The quality of debate in the Commons deteriorates, and our respect for the institution, diminishes.