Calm, logical, decisive – Alistair Darling was the perfect crisis chancellor | William Keegan

The death of former chancellor Alistair Darling at the age of 70 has come as a shock. The fact that he had been suffering from an aggressive form of cancer was known only to his doctors and his immediate family circle.

As chancellor of the exchequer from 2007 to 2010, he found himself in the eye of the storm of the worst financial crisis to hit the UK and much of the world since the 1920s. As one of the closely knit group of Scottish politicians at the top of the Labour party, he was asked to serve as chancellor when Gordon Brown finally took over the premiership from Tony Blair in the summer of 2007.

Darling had earned a reputation in previous cabinet jobs as “a safe pair of hands”, one of his little-known achievements when at the Department for Transport having been to resist a Treasury plan to pull down St Pancras Station, the renovation of which has made it one of London’s great attractions.

Within weeks of his arrival at the Treasury, the government was hit by the Northern Rock affair, when people around the world saw television pictures of worried depositors queueing round the block to withdraw their funds.

Soon after came the collapse of the ridiculously overstretched Royal Bank of Scotland. Shortly before that, Darling gave a frank interview to the Guardian warning that “economic conditions are arguably the worst they’ve been in 60 years”.

This was all too well founded, but did his relations with prime minister Gordon Brown no good. It proved to be only one of many occasions when their relationship became fraught. The fact of the matter was that British policymakers – No 10, the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority – were ill prepared for the financial crisis, and found themselves having to learn fast on the job. Darling was a quick, methodical student.

In the end, with major recapitalisation of the banking system, and a bout of bank nationalisations, they got through with flying colours. When Brown claimed to have “saved the world” – a slip of the tongue immediately corrected to having saved the banking system – his chancellor also deserved considerable credit.

Darling’s cool and calm approach to the most difficult financial crisis in living memory has been widely praised. In the words of Lord Macpherson, his most senior official at the time: “Alistair Darling was the perfect Chancellor for a crisis: calm, logical and decisive. He combined huge integrity with a wonderful dry wit.”

This was an assessment shared by many. The tributes that have been pouring in during the last few days are genuine. His warm personality and plain, old-fashioned decency, were appreciated by colleagues and political opponents alike. Alistair Darling was a proper public servant of the old school – a sense of duty to be echoed a few years later when he led the Better Together campaign to keep the country together during the Scottish referendum of 2014.

That dry wit was exemplified when, in the face of differences with the Bank of England governor, Darling referred to Sir Mervyn King sardonically in his memoirs Back from the Brink as “the Sun King”.

Darling also noted the irony of the way he started out politically as a rabid lefty, then moved to the centre, only ultimately finding himself nationalising the banks.


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