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Tribute to Alistair Darling


3 min read

A former chancellor who saved his country twice, Alistair Darling will also be widely remembered for his decency, wise judgement and patriotism. He was a remarkable British servant to the end. Words by Lord Robertson

Alistair Darling was not flashy nor noisy, but he was tough, perceptive and very, very effective. These were the qualities of a man whose death was greeted in the Westminster village with widespread shock and sadness. Few people attract that universal sentiment.

But then not many people are hailed, quite rightly, as having saved his country twice. His calm, measured approach to the crisis in the banking sector in 2007 and 2008 saved more than the banks – it saved the country from a devastating depression. 

He often said later that his priority at that moment was not saving the banking institutions and the cavalier people whose recklessness had precipitated the mess, but the ordinary people who would have been the casualties of the meltdown. They were his priority then, as in all the other cabinet posts he held before.

The still United Kingdom owes so much to the quiet man from Edinburgh

The second time he saved his country was in being persuaded to take on the leadership of the campaign to stop the breakup of Britain. He was justifiably reluctant to re-enter the bear pit that is Scottish politics but sheer patriotism made him do it. He saw the 2014 referendum as nothing less than a grave threat to the whole country.

I speak from personal experience when I say that politics in Scotland is a rough business – after my stint leading Scottish Labour, all the conflicts and wars I dealt with subsequently were a piece of cake. But Alistair’s quality and decency marked him as the man to save us from the split. He did it with style, determination - and with real conviction.

The man who had been chancellor and also secretary of state for work and pensions, transport, trade and industry, and Scotland knew the human cost of splitting Scotland from the rest of Britain – and he cared again about the human casualties of reckless decisions. The still United Kingdom owes so much to the quiet man from Edinburgh.

Alistair was a bright man and a decent man – but with a core of steel. He will be remembered for his wise judgement and cool decision-making when the banks were dying and for the feisty way in which he stopped the Nationalist tide, but there was so much more to him than that.

He was part of a great partnership with his wife, Maggie. A former journalist from the Scottish press school of hard knocks, Maggie was formidable. When they came to attack Alistair, as so many did and from close quarters at times, the fiery response from the partnership took no prisoners. They were a legendary team and a half.

Maggie, with characteristic wit pointed out in the financial crisis: “My husband owns four banks, and that means a lot of paperwork”. He relied on her great strength and his son, Calum and daughter Anna were also close – and they all loved their bolt-hole in the Western Isles.

Reams will be written in tribute of the man who held with distinction and success one of the highest offices in the land. And many will also rightly commend a man who, in spite of his firmly held Labour beliefs, could always lean across the divide in the national interest.
The last time I was with him at a Labour fundraiser in his garden, he refused to work the crowd, staying in the background serving the drinks. A truly remarkable British servant to the end. 


Lord Robertson of Port Ellen is a Labour peer

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