Alistair Darling was not just Edinburgh’s MP, he was everyone’s

1 December 2023, 17:22

Alistair Darling will be remembered for his quick-thinking during the financial crash.
Alistair Darling will be remembered for his quick-thinking during the financial crash. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

Alistair Darling was a fixture in Edinburgh politics long before he became one in the UK government.

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And he was a long-haired, outspoken political rebel, long before his somewhat staid, sensible, lawyerly exterior gave such confidence to the British public when the crash of 2008 hit the financial sector.

It all started, as many political careers do, at university - Aberdeen in his case - but it was in Edinburgh where he cut his teeth on the thorny issues of finance and transport, which would follow him all the way to Westminster.

Elected first in 1982 to Lothian Regional Council, he, like many other Labour councillors of the time, wanted to defy Margaret Thatcher’s rate capping laws, suggesting the council should fail to set one and force the UK government to intervene. He also once stood on a table and declared to a packed public meeting in Edinburgh’s Tollcross about a new road, “this is nonsense and you don’t have to put up with it”.

Certainly up with it he did not put - and when he became transport convener he ripped up the contracts for the extension of the M8 into the heart of Scotland’s capital city, later saying Edinburgh “would have been destroyed by these maniacs who wanted to build a stilted-up motorway as the way of the future.”

For that alone he would be warmly remembered. But there was so much more to come.

Alistair Darling loved Edinburgh. It was the city where his great uncle William Y Darling had been Lord Provost during WWII and for a time had been MP for Edinburgh South, though his rosette was more blue than red. In 1987 it was the constituency of Edinburgh Central that sent a second Darling to London.

He used to say that it was Robin Cook’s fault he ended up in the Commons - he was carving out a career as an advocate until Cook opted to change seats, and stand in Livingston instead of in the city leaving a Darling-sized space to fill.A reluctant MP he may have been, but he served the city for 28 years, becoming a hard-working, highly regarded constituency MP, well-liked by all, no matter if they voted for or against him.

He was a reluctant leader too, of the Better Together campaign in 2014. He had no desire to be the figurehead for the No vote in that independence battle, yet it was his gravitas and experience which others were convinced made him perfect for it. Those on the winning side certainly put much of their success down to him.

A less showy, ego-driven politician it would be hard to find, Alistair Darling was a man who just got his head down and got on with the job - be it as Transport Minister or ultimately as Chancellor. Of course the moment where he showed his mettle was in a time of extraordinary crisis, the financial crash of 2008; his unflappable demeanour combined with quick thinking, meant that complete disaster was averted.

Reflecting on that time he would say that ironically it was the Scottish banks in “my own city” which caused the biggest problems. He would come back to Edinburgh “thinking how many people depend on these banks for their livelihoods - not just the people who work for them but the shopkeepers who depend on people who have money to spend, the value of people’s houses, the taxi trade… “

RBS was, of course, not just Edinburgh’s bank, but the biggest in the world at that time, and its collapse would have brought down the entire banking system. Alistair Darling ensured that didn’t happen. At that very moment he was not just Edinburgh’s MP, he was everyone’s.

Darling then will be remembered as a political titan, part of that cohort of Labour politicians who treated their jobs with the utmost responsibility - Robin Cook, John Smith, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown… all cut from the same Scots cloth.

But most of all he was a good friend and a devoted family man with a sharp intellect and dry wit. It is his wife and children who knew him best, and who will miss him most.