Alistair Darling's political life provided honourable lessons for all – Brian Wilson

Following the death of former Chancellor Alistair Darling, his friend Brian Wilson recalls a man who had an acerbic humour and deep humanity beneath his straitlaced exterior

Friday, August 10, 2007. I’m in a supermarket in Mallorca with Alistair Darling who has been Chancellor of the Exchequer for two months and is becoming a more widely recognised public figure, throughout the UK. He regards this as a distinct downside of the job and does his best to avoid the curious glances of our fellow Brits on holiday as they pause from filling their trolleys to check him out and point the occasional finger.

We’re heading for a hasty exit when he spots a Financial Times and a headline that startles him. The Northern Rock building society is in financial trouble and may seek government help. For Alistair, it is the first intimation of what lies ahead.

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Back at our accommodation, we are on opposite sides of the pool going about our respective business while the children splash happily. I am calling into the calm waters of Celtic’s audit committee while Alistair is talking to the Treasury about unfolding events which will soon threaten the global economy and shape his reputation.

Alistair Darling and his wife Maggie arrive at a polling station in Edinburgh to vote in the 2014 independence referendum (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/pool/AFP via Getty Images)Alistair Darling and his wife Maggie arrive at a polling station in Edinburgh to vote in the 2014 independence referendum (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Alistair Darling and his wife Maggie arrive at a polling station in Edinburgh to vote in the 2014 independence referendum (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Recalling such cameos lightened the load yesterday. A lot of shared experiences, hilarity and bonds of friendship; the contradictions of a public figure who didn’t want to be recognised; the contrast between a straitlaced exterior and the realities of acerbic humour and deep humanity.

Officials treated with respect

Not many politicians have received the kind of send-off accorded to Alistair over the past couple of days. The superlatives have flowed and each is well-earned. His personal qualities and capabilities had become more apparent in proportion to the scale of the challenge with which he was presented.

I think that among the tributes from great and good, the ones which might have pleased him most came from those who worked for him, particularly in the white heat of the financial crisis. It was one of Alistair’s hallmarks to treat his officials with respect and consideration. They reciprocated with loyalty and a rare level of genuine affection which survived long after Alistair left government.

If lessons are to be drawn from his political life, that is not a bad one to start with. What happens in front of cameras is about the politician. How he or she behaves behind the scenes denotes the calibre of the person. Alistair always passed that test with flying colours.

After the 1983 general election rout, Labour was at existential risk as a party of government. From a range of hinterlands, those of us active in left-wing politics had a decision to make. Were we serious enough about forestalling that fate to become engaged in the long, hard battle – internal and external – to restore Labour’s electoral credibility?

There was no point going into Parliament without a single-minded determination to pursue that goal. A Labour Party, then as now, which could not be elected to govern was of no use to anyone; least of all those who needed a Labour government most.

Labour values, not soggy compromise

Alistair was among the brightest and best of the 1987 intake of MPs who accepted that the long haul of hard work, unity and competent opposition were the necessary preludes to government. It was a shared commitment that drew some of us together as friends as well as colleagues and allies.

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One of the most common phrases used about him has been that he was “not a tribal politician”. Yet Alistair was extremely loyal to the Labour tribe and to resisting diversions or divisions which weakened it. Once in government, he brought Labour values, rather than soggy compromise, to every position he held.

The point his brand of politics demonstrated is that it is possible to be loyal to one’s own tribe, its values and culture without being disrespectful to others, or failing to recognise that there are good people and motivations within them. There are also times when political tribes can have shared interests while diverging sharply on others.

Economic credibility key to independence referendum

This was exemplified in Alistair’s leadership of the Better Together campaign. The binary nature of a referendum made it necessary to work alongside politicians with whom he might agree on little else. That was a matter of common sense rather than ideology yet it was wide open to misrepresentation.

Alistair had the personal and political courage to swallow that pill and was uniquely qualified to occupy the role. Ultimately, the outcome of the 2014 referendum probably hung on economic credibility and the reputation he built through the financial crisis made him a trusted figure when delivering the necessary home truths.

Yet as Alex Salmond acknowledged, there was not a harsh word spoken outside the cut and thrust of debate. Political tribes do not have to merge or disband in order to exercise the kind of respect and courtesy which Alistair personified. Disagreement, however robust, does not require personal malice; another honourable lesson from Alistair’s political life.

The shared interests between our families were reinforced by his connections to Lewis or, more precisely, his mother’s native island of Great Bernera. These meant an immense amount to him and, I have no doubt, helped to shape his character and outlook.

This affinity went all the way back to childhood and as the years advanced, his desire to spend more time in the family home on Bernera only increased; doing the things he really enjoyed and passing on his love of the place and all it meant to him to the next generation. Over the past couple of years, the old house has been renovated and he was able to experience the results on what proved to be his last visit, just a few weeks ago.

For all who knew them, perceptions of Alistair and all he achieved are inextricably linked to the wonderful Maggie and their beloved children, Calum and Anna. A necessary point at which to stop, before I get emotional.



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