Scotsman Obituaries: Alistair Darling, Chancellor who helped UK survive 2008 financial crisis

Alistair Darling, politician. Born: 28 November 1953 in London. Died: 30 November 2023 in Edinburgh, aged 70
Alistair Darling pictured in Edinburgh in September 2014 when he led the Better Together campaign (Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP)Alistair Darling pictured in Edinburgh in September 2014 when he led the Better Together campaign (Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP)
Alistair Darling pictured in Edinburgh in September 2014 when he led the Better Together campaign (Picture: Ben Stansall/AFP)

Alistair Darling, who has died from cancer at the age of 70, was a proud son of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh Labour Party. Thirty-eight years ago he had the good sense to marry Maggie Vaughan, an even prouder woman of Edinburgh and Leith. Their paths first crossed in the Abbotsford Bar on Rose Street when he was a Lothian Regional councillor and she a gregarious, clever journalist on the Sunday Standard.

Maggie and Alistair had two children, Calum and Anna. Alistair was proud of them and loved them unconditionally. He was never happier than sitting round his kitchen table with Maggie, their friends and his children, eating good food and drinking wine.

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Alistair was involved in student politics at Aberdeen University where he studied law but it was in the Edinburgh City Labour Party that he honed his party political skills.

Throughout his political life he could boast of many achievements but none gave him more pleasure than being one of the Young Turks of Edinburgh City Labour Party who stopped a motorway running through the centre of Edinburgh. Alongside George Foulkes, the late Robin Cook and Sandy Ross, he helped overturn the Conservatives’ plans to build a motorway through the Meadows, up Lothian Road, across George Street and over the Bridges. If he ever gave you a lift he was sure to remind you.

He was equally proud of defying the powers-that-be who wanted to knock down St Pancras Station in London. When he was Secretary of State for Transport, not only did he successfully argue to keep it, he approved and re-approved £100 billion to redevelop the area around Kings Cross station.

Alistair was born in London and attended 11 primary schools as the family followed his father, Sandy, a civil engineer, to various jobs throughout the UK. When Alistair was 12 the family settled in Edinburgh but by that time he had been dispatched to Loretto School, an establishment of which he had little good to say.

Anna, his mother, hailed from the island of Lewis, and ever since he was a little boy until one month before his death Alistair happily, and as often as he could, made the trek back to the family home. Not for him the convenience of flight, he loved the ferry crossing and could regale you with the characteristics and details of any CalMac ship on the Ullapool to Stornoway run.

Alistair was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1984. Although he was “distracted” by politics he enjoyed law and the company of lawyers and had no intention of standing for Parliament in 1987 until Robin Cook decided to stand in the safer Livingston constituency. Alistair took the risk, beat the incumbent, Alex Fletcher, and remained the MP for Edinburgh Central and Edinburgh South West until he stood down from Parliament in 2015.

Andrew Burns, former Edinburgh council leader, who worked with Alistair across four general elections, said: “Alistair obviously had a significant national profile and, for many people throughout the country, he was an instantly recognisable politician. But for me, as his election agent in Edinburgh, I had a quite different perspective on the man. Despite the pressures of his national roles, whenever Alistair was in Edinburgh he always made the time to do whatever local engagements and visits his campaign team would ask of him. He never lost sight of the fact that, first-and-foremost, he was an Edinburgh MP who was elected to represent his constituents. It was always so evident that Alistair loved being in Scotland’s capital city, and cared deeply about its residents. As a local politician myself during that time, I just couldn’t have asked for a better role model who also became the most loyal of friends.”

Alistair rose through Labour’s parliamentary ranks very quickly. In 1988 Neil Kinnock made him Home Affairs spokesman, and later a spokesman on Treasury affairs. Tony Blair made him Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1996. Throughout Blair’s premiership Alistair held a number of roles: Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Social Security and Secretary of State in the Department of Transport. Usually he was appointed to clear up problems created by his predecessors, and he made lifelong friends in each department.

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Gordon Brown made Alistair Chancellor of the Exchequer when he became prime minister in 2007, although it was a close-run thing as Ed Balls, Gordon Brown’s friend and ally, was very much in the running, and remained so throughout Alistair’s chancellorship. The Treasury was well run but still completely unprepared for the 2008 global financial crisis. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, has never been more true. Alistair stepped up, and alongside Gordon, and excellent Treasury officials, pulled every available lever and created others to stop the financial crisis spiralling into a massive depression. It was a grim time and many of the casualties lived in Alistair’s own constituency. He was very aware of the hopes and dreams shattered as they saw their shares, mainly life savings, plunge from £26 to 10p.

The political falling out between Gordon and Alistair came over the budget of 2009. They did not agree over growth forecasts and strategy. Alistair wanted to err on the side of credibility, Gordon on the side of optimism. Not long after, the relationship was further strained over the “Investment against Cuts” argument. Alistair thought it an incredible argument to run.

Alistair was looking forward to spending more time on Lewis and in his garden when the call came in 2012 for him to lead the Better Together campaign. Considered to be the least divisive political figure in Scotland and able to hold the different political tribes together, he reluctantly took it on simply because he genuinely believed Scots were better off being part of the United Kingdom. On a personal basis it cost him dearly – for the first time in his political life he was spat upon and booed in public. For a man who always showed respect to his political opponents it was a bitter pill.

He went into the House of Lords in 2015 but resigned in 2020. For many reasons, it did not suit his temperament.

Alistair would have been delighted and surprised at the outpouring of respect and sorrow there has been since he died. At some tributes, he would have smiled wryly.

A service of thanksgiving will be held at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral at 11am today, all welcome.


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