I hope you will forgive me if I devote my entire column this week to one man…
On the day the sad and shocking news came through that Alistair Darling had died, Matt Hancock was getting tied up in knots at the Covid Inquiry, and Esther McVey was making a fool of herself on BBC Question Time. And I was feeling not just sad at the loss of a friend with whom I had worked closely for many years, but shocked at how fast and how low our politics has fallen.
Ms McVey is apparently “minister for common sense”, a Rishi Sunak wheeze to appeal to the culture warriors in his Party convinced that a few anti-“woke” campaigns will compensate for a weak economy, public services on their knees, and the first Parliament in history with real disposable income lower at the end than the beginning. The Doncaster audience laughed as she struggled to explain what her role was, even more laughably comparing herself to Ken Clarke and Peter Mandelson, claiming they had done a similar job in the past. Really?
Alistair Darling, alongside Gordon Brown and Jack Straw one of three people who served in the Cabinet every day of the New Labour era from 1997-2010, did several jobs in government, none of them minister for common sense, but all of them as a minister with common sense. He was a totally solid citizen. He was a team player. He saw politics as public service, pure and simple. He could no more lie or cheat than he could fly to Mars.
Integrity and common decency ran through him, sometimes with near comic effect. Like the time he called me from holiday, on the day the Queen Mother died, and he wanted to know if I felt he could go outside, given he did not have a black tie with him, and didn’t want anyone to think he was being disrespectful. Or the time he and his wonderful wife Maggie – he alone insisted on calling her Margaret – were heading to France with friends, and Alistair discovered they were taking some British meat with them, to be cooked and eaten on French soil. So worried was he about anyone thinking he might be breaking customs regulations, he could later be found seeking a burial ground for the bones of the offending joint.
He was “proper” in everything he did. By the time he was Chancellor, I had left Downing Street, but kept in touch with him, with Gordon Brown and other ministers. He called me in from time to time to help with, for example, his Budgets and his Party Conference speeches. He knew that I could be trusted with secrets, but equally he knew that “outsiders”, which technically I was, should not be privy to Budget plans. “You must promise me you won’t discuss this with anyone,” he would say. “Of course.” Alistair could command loyalty and trust because he commanded such respect.
He had a terrific sense of humour, often at his own expense, rarely displayed in his many public appearances. His fondness for dark humour came in especially handy during and after the global financial crisis, when he was wrestling with decisions and sums of money that would terrify lesser mortals. Ahead of one of those Budgets, he delighted in showing me a press cutting about the foreign minister of North Korea, who had been executed for missing economic targets. “So I shouldn’t grumble,” he added. “I’m still alive.”
He took the same “shouldn’t grumble” approach during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, when he was the reluctant leader of the campaign to save the Union. Why reluctant? Because campaigning was not his thing. He preferred the business of government to the games you sometimes need to play to get there. But David Cameron had enough self-awareness to know that putting himself centre stage in the referendum would be less productive than putting up a man whose commitment to Scotland was as unshakeable as his commitment to the values and principles that had propelled him into public life in the first place.
He was very nervous ahead of the big TV debates with the SNP leader Alex Salmond, and though he did well, especially in the first one, would beat himself up that he could have done better. I often felt Alistair underestimated himself as a politician. His modesty and humility were genuine. He was not a grandstander. I cannot recall a single occasion when he sought preferment or promotion for himself. He knew that having a public profile went with the territory, but it was not why he was there. During the referendum, we had a meeting in a hotel in Edinburgh, and at one point he looked up and smiled weakly at a couple who were pointing at us, in a perfectly friendly way, from across the bar. “Why on earth do people have to stare at us like that?” he muttered through the smile.
My partner Fiona used to write profiles of MPs and peers for The House magazine, and in 1991, her subject was Alistair. He had been an MP for just four years, and was part of the shadow home office team. Looking at the interview today, several decades later, there is one passage that really stands out, and underlines my point about him being a creature of government, someone serious about politics and about making change.
“I support what Neil Kinnock has done [seeking to modernise the Party] and there are some people whose views I can’t understand. If you spend too long opposing things, you forget what you are in favour of. I joined the Labour Party to see things changed, not to complain about what other people are doing and if we don’t get another Labour government we are never going to get any change at all.”
Amen to that.
My favourite “not a lot of people know that” fact about Alistair… Though always described as a Scot, he was born in London. His father was a civil engineer constantly on the move from one project to another, so that Alistair went to seven different primary schools, and the family didn’t move to live in Scotland until he was 12. Now you know.
There is always a risk of hypocrisy in death, when politicians who have spent years attacking you suddenly pop up to lavish you with praise. I understand it to some extent, but I think some of the Tory tributes to Alistair might at least have acknowledged that at the time, far from praising his calm steering of the economy through the global crash, they made it the centrepiece of their entire re-election campaign in 2010 and beyond. I’m sure many of you remember 2010… “the mess we inherited, the mess we inherited, the mess we inherited…” and then, five years later “don’t give the keys back to the people who crashed the car…” Alistair didn’t crash the car. He was at the wheel when the US sub-prime mortgage market sent the car careering towards a cliff, and Alistair was somehow able to get it back on track, and prevent a crisis from turning into a catastrophe.
I hope, as they delivered their doubtless heartfelt tributes, the Tories allowed themselves at least a moment or two to reflect that it was the kind of brutally successful but often dishonest political campaigning that Alistair found somewhat distasteful, whoever was doing it.
He really will be missed. And if there is one lesson from his life and times, it is this: politics needs good, honest, principled, hard-working, serious people more than it has ever needed them. Alistair Darling was one of those people, and we should never forget the value and the values of his public service.