Alistair Darling and James Douglas-Hamilton represented the best of British politics – Christine Jardine
I was reminded this past week of what is missing from our politics and government with the passing of two figures who may have occupied opposite sides of parliament but who represented what is best on both. The deaths of James Douglas-Hamilton and Alistair Darling left me thinking back to the interactions I had had with them, first as a journalist and then a politician.
Both brought a smile to my face and a sense of pride for them in what they had achieved both politically and personally. James Douglas-Hamilton was a Conservative predecessor of mine as MP for Edinburgh West from 1974 to 1997 before holding a seat as a Lothian list MSP from 1999 to 2005.
As a young journalist, I had often interviewed the then Scotland Office minister, never thinking for a moment that I would one day sit in his place in the Commons. He had a uniquely charming way of dealing with us pesky reporters. A gentleman through and through, he was always the epitome of courtesy.
More recently whenever our paths crossed at Westminster, he always took a moment to say hello, offer encouragement, and ask how things were in the constituency, where he is still mentioned fondly on doorsteps. I was not at the Edinburgh count in 1997 when James Douglas-Hamilton was defeated by Donald Gorrie, but those who were say his was the most gracious concession speech they have heard.
Ironically perhaps, that election was the same one in which Alistair Darling moved from opposition benches to a seat at the Cabinet table. An MP since 1987, a councillor beforehand with elevation afterwards to the Lords, his was the most sure-footed of political careers.
Yet he dealt with two of the biggest political and economic challenges this country has faced in a century. It fell to Alistair Darling as Chancellor to react to that infamous call from the Royal Bank of Scotland at the height of the financial crisis, which revealed that both the bank, and the country, were perched on the edge of a precipice.
The remarkable story of the hours that followed and the actions which prevented economic catastrophe have been well documented. But I will never forget the evening he recounted the story to Scottish Liberal Democrats gathered for a meeting of Better Together during the referendum campaign. The expression on the faces of those hearing the details for the first time approached horror. Incredulity. Could that actually have happened?
Yet nothing in the demeanour of the former Chancellor during the crisis, or in the way he recounted the story, betrayed any hint of panic or lack of control. Perhaps that was also why Alistair Darling was selected to lead the campaign to save the Union. He was calm, supremely articulate and always, always stuck to the issue in question.
It is an approach sadly missing in politics today as we listen to the sorry tales of government through the pandemic and since. Both Alistair Darling and James Douglas-Hamilton represented, in their own ways, the best of British politics. Those of us who follow in their footsteps should take heed. They showed how it is possible to do politics well. We have big shoes to fill.
Christine Jardine is Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West
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