HIS career took him from battling over road schemes in Edinburgh to steering the UK through the world’s biggest banking crisis and then saving the Union in last year’s independence referendum.
But now Alistair Darling – ex-Lothian councillor and city MP, former chancellor and leader of the Better Together campaign – has said goodbye to the Commons after 28 years.
Speaking exclusively to the Evening News, he recalled rabble rousing at Tollcross Primary School, turning down a job from Tony Blair and his worries for Edinburgh as the banking crisis broke.
He was born in London, but his father was a civil engineer and the family moved around the country depending on what project he was working on. Eventually the family settled back in Edinburgh in 1966.
Mr Darling qualified as a solicitor in 1978 and his first foray into elected politics came in 1982 when he won the Haymarket/Tollcross ward on Lothian Regional Council. But the Falklands War had given the Tories a boost and the election saw Labour lose control of the council to a Tory/Liberal coalition.
Mr Darling became transport convener when Labour regained control of Lothian in 1986, which put him right at the heart of what had been a long-running battle over the proposed Western Relief Road, a bypass for Corstorphine.
I stopped most tram projects in England because they all had the same features that the Edinburgh trams.”Alistair Darling
“It was basically extending the M8 into Lothian Road,” says Mr Darling.
“It was a dog end of the ridiculous ideas from the 1960s and 70s when there were numerous attempts to knock down the city centre and build an urban motorway through the Meadows.
“It had been scrapped, but never killed off. I remember going to a meeting in Tollcross Primary School where the consultants spun a complete yarn about the benefits to Tollcross and I caused a great stir – I stood on a table and said ‘this is nonsense and you don’t have to put up with it’. There were about 200 or 300 people there, all very anti the road.
“When we got elected in 1986, the contracts had been signed the day before the election and we ripped them up the day after the election, so it was never built.
“If we hadn’t stopped it, the middle of Edinburgh would have been a completely different place from what it is today. It would have been destroyed by these maniacs who wanted to build a stilted-up motorway as the way of the future.”
He was selected as Labour’s candidate for Edinburgh Central at the 1987 election, but says he did not expect to win. Robin Cook, who had represented the seat since 1974, had opted to move to the Livingston constituency at the previous election after boundary changes paved the way for the Tories to win it.
“If Robin hadn’t gone I would never have stood. I was in no mood to go round the country as some people do, looking for seats. My career as an advocate was just beginning to get going, I was getting good cases.”
After a year as MP, Mr Darling was promoted to the opposition frontbench, working with Roy Hattersley on home affairs.
“Then in 1992, when John Smith became leader, both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair asked if I would go and work for their teams.
“I turned down Tony, thinking a couple of years later it might have been a mistake, but it was always the economic stuff I was interested in.
“Gordon said ‘what sort of areas would you like to work in?’. It was an offer you couldn’t refuse.”
When Labour won power in 1997, Mr Darling went straight into the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, then held a succession of posts before becoming chancellor when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as prime minister in 2007.
Of the jobs before he reached Number 11, he says he enjoyed his four years at transport most.
“I’ve always liked planes, trains and cars and actually being able to do things that make a difference.”
Mr Darling avoided saying too much during the Edinburgh trams controversy, but he is not an enthusiast.
“I stopped most tram projects in England because they all had the same features that the Edinburgh trams has – you start off with a price which is hopelessly unrealistic, you then discover nobody knows what’s under the ground, and the whole thing has to be rethought.
“I’m not going to pretend I was always in favour of the tram because people know I wasn’t. It’s built now and I’ve been on it a few times, but Edinburgh has one of the best bus networks in the country. What worries me is if the bus service is tied into the trams and the debt for the trams, that will have consequences.”
He says Lord Hardie’s inquiry into the trams is essential for learning lessons.
“Big projects are always full of mistakes and something went very wrong along the way here. You have to learn because there will be other big engineering projects in the future.
“And if the tram is to be extended, you wouldn’t be forgiven if you didn’t learn from the things that clearly went wrong this time.”
Mr Darling will always be remembered as the chancellor who had to deal with the worst global banking crisis the world has ever seen.
“Ironically it was the Scottish banks in my own city that were one of the biggest problems I had to deal with. You’d come back to Edinburgh thinking how many people depend on these banks one way or another for their livelihoods, not just the people who work for them – which is a lot – but the shopkeepers who depend on people who have money to spend, the value of people’s houses, the taxi trade.
“Obviously there were far bigger things in play – RBS at that time was the biggest bank in the world and if it had gone down it wouldn’t just have been Edinburgh, it would have brought down the entire banking system.”
After Labour’s defeat at the 2010 election, Mr Darling retired to the backbenches but soon found himself catapulted back to the front line leading the campaign across Scotland against the SNP’s independence bid.
The No campaign won the day, but the issue has not gone away.
“One thing I hadn’t bargained for is how deep the divisions still are. There’s only five million of us – we’ve all got to live in the same land, but this undercurrent that if you voted No you weren’t for Scotland is nonsense. That is something we ought to work hard to stop.”
Life and times from law to Labour
1953: Born in London.
1966: Family settles back in Edinburgh.
1978: Qualifies as a solicitor.
1982: Elected to Lothian Regional Council.
1986: Transport convener.
1987: Elected MP for Edinburgh Central.
1988: Opposition home affairs spokesman.
1992: Opposition Treasury spokesman.
1997: Chief Secretary to Treasury.
1998: Work and Pensions Secretary.
2002: Transport Secretary.
2003: Scottish Secretary added to portfolio.
2005: Boundary changes, becomes MP for Edinburgh South-West.
2007: Chancellor of Exchequer.
2008: Worst banking crisis in history.
2010: Holds seat with increased majority despite Labour losing power.
2011: Publishes inside account of the banking crisis, Back from the Brink.
2012: Chairman of cross-party Better Together campaign against independence.
2015: Steps down as MP.