Alistair Darling: Tributes pour in for a ‘statesman of unimpeachable integrity’

From the 2008 financial crash to the 2014 referendum, the former chancellor was a titan of politics

"I don't believe in panicking until it's absolutely necessary,” wrote Alistair Darling in his memoir Back from the Brink. "But I came close to considering it on Tuesday, October 7, 2008.”

Lord Darling, who has died at the age of 70, will be remembered as the chancellor who led the UK through the worst financial crisis in almost a century. Speaking to the BBC almost a decade later, he recalled the moment on that October day when Sir Tom McKillop, the-then chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, told him the money was about to run out.

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"I had to go to one of these meetings of European finance ministers,” he said. “I was asked to come out and take a call from the-then chairman of RBS, who said the bank was hemorrhaging money – and remember this was a bank that not only was the biggest in the world, it was about the same size as the entire UK economy. It was that big.

Alistair DarlingAlistair Darling
Alistair Darling

"I said to him ‘look, of course we’ve got plans to deal with this. How long can you last?’ And what he said to me shook me to the core. He said ‘well, we’re going to run out of money in the early afternoon’.

"Think about it. The cash machines would have gone off, the doors would have closed – there would have been blind panic throughout the entire banking system, not just in the UK, in America, in Europe. We were that close to a total collapse.”

Serving under former prime minister Gordon Brown, Mr Darling had been tasked with filling his boss’s old chair in the Treasury. But less than a year after he was given the post, he found himself stewarding the UK economy through the world-shaking crisis of 2008.

It was an extraordinary political moment. But Mr Darling’s time in the political spotlight was far from over.

He went on to head the pro-UK Better Together campaign in the lead-up to the 2014 independence referendum, a period of unprecedented political fervour in Scotland. It was a job he never wanted – but when no one else would do it, he rose to the occasion.

“I remember going in to see him in the House of Commons when we were trying to persuade him to lead the Better Together campaign, and him looking at me with absolute horror," Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar told The Scotsman. “He said ‘you could pay me all the money in the world, I still wouldn’t know how to set up a Facebook page. I’m not sure I’m the right person for this job’.”

Mr Darling took part in two highly publicised debates with then first minister Alex Salmond, which featured testy exchanges between the pair ahead of the vote. The first clash, in which the former chancellor went on the attack over currency, is still cited as a key moment in the referendum campaign.

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In a speech delivered after the result, Mr Darling said Scots had “chosen unity over division and positive change rather than needless separation”. But it was his party that bore the brunt of electoral shifts in the following years. Scottish politics was never the same again.

A statement issued on behalf of Mr Darling’s family said “the much-loved husband of Margaret and beloved father of Calum and Anna” had died after a short spell in the Western General Hospital “under the wonderful care of the cancer team”.

Tributes flowed in from across the political spectrum. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Darling had lived a life “devoted to public service".

Mr Brown said he was “deeply saddened” by the news, adding: “Alistair will be remembered as a statesman of unimpeachable integrity whose life was defined by a strong sense of social justice and who gained a global reputation for the assured competence and the exercise of considered judgment he brought to the handling of economic affairs.”

Mr Salmond praised his old opponent’s tenure as chancellor during the financial crash. “Whatever else Alistair was feeling behind the scenes, he always came across as being in charge, being calm, knowing what he was doing and that was absolutely essential to that moment of crisis,” he said. “When the moment of test came, Alistair passed with flying colours.”

The former first minister said he never had a “cross word” with Mr Darling outside the “intense” televised debates.

Sir Tony Blair said Mr Darling was the “safest of safe hands” in government. Foreign secretary Lord Cameron said the former chancellor was a “thoroughly kind and decent man”.

He added: “We owe him a huge debt of gratitude for chairing the Better Together campaign ahead of the referendum in 2014. He led the campaign with great distinction and tenacity, securing Scotland’s place in our Union.”

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Born in London in 1953, Mr Darling was educated at the fee-paying Loretto School near Edinburgh and later attended Aberdeen University, where he earned a degree in law. As a student, he was something of a political radical, reportedly distributing “Marxist” leaflets.

He served in the Lothian Regional Council, but his entry into national politics came in 1987, when he won the Edinburgh Central seat for Labour. He held the constituency and its successor, Edinburgh South West, until 2015.

Mr Darling was a perennial minister in the Brown and Blair administrations, serving as Scottish secretary, work and pensions secretary and transport secretary, among others. He was given a life peerage in 2015, becoming Baron Darling of Roulanish, ultimately retiring from the House of Lords in 2020.

But it was his work in the late 2000s for which he will be best known, facilitating the bailout of the UK banking system following the sub-prime mortgage crash to the tune of £137 billion, negotiated in a late-night meeting with bank bosses in 11 Downing Street.

Mr Sarwar said he would remember Mr Darling’s “dry good humour”. Speaking to The Scotsman, the Scottish Labour leader said: “He wasn’t affectionate in the conventional sense, but he was a very caring, very loving, very dedicated person to those he was close to – his friends, his family, his colleagues.”

Mr Sarwar said Mr Darling was a “very humble man”, adding: “Everything he did wasn’t because he was searching for a title, wasn’t because he was searching for glory, wasn’t because he was trying to be some kind of historical figure – he always did what he did because he believed in public service and believed that there was something bigger than himself.”



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