The news of Alistair Darling’s death on Thursday came as a terrible shock to us all. A statesman of unimpeachable integrity and a man driven by a deep sense of social justice, twice in his career he stepped up when his country needed him and demonstrated a level of wisdom, courage and calmness that is granted to only the most exceptional of politicians and public figures.
The first was when, as chancellor of the exchequer during the 2007 global financial crash, it fell on him to manage the Treasury during an existential national crisis in which our major banks came within hours of collapse. He emerged from that shock with his reputation immeasurably enhanced; and as prime minister during that time, I found myself often grateful for his judgment. For his wry humour too: I well remember him telling me once – eyebrows arched – of the bank executive who claimed that he only now had become aware of the risks he was taking.
Alistair may have viewed the behaviour of the banks dimly but he went about the job with calm practicality: as the crisis reached its deepest point, he famously ordered £245 worth of curry and rice to feed to bankers while telling them they had no choice but to accept the terms we were proposing.
The second came a few years later when Alistair agreed to be chair of the Better Together campaign, arguing the case for Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom in the 2014 independence referendum. It was an immensely challenging task and not one he chose – rather, he was dragooned into the role.
Alistair was rightly seen as the best figure on the pro-UK side who could work as a leader and conciliator, bringing together people from across the political divide. He did an exceptional job. Alistair’s logical and forensic brain was ideally suited to the widely publicised TV debates in which he excelled; indeed even Alex Salmond would now concede that in the crucial first TV encounter, he was thoroughly out-debated.
Despite the highly fraught and deeply divisive nature of that campaign, Alistair gained respect, liked both by his supporters and his opponents. That has been evident in the warm statements issued by other party leaders in the wake of his death. All those who support the UK owe him a lasting and deep debt of gratitude.
However, these two roles were among the many he discharged with diligence over his long career. I remember him first as a successful councillor in Edinburgh in the early 80s, before 1987 when he became a highly effective member of parliament for Edinburgh Central, a constituency he loved and which later became Edinburgh South West.
After the 1997 general election victory, he soon gained a reputation as a minister who could take a department in crisis and smooth over troubled waters. He was an excellent people-manager, and that rare breed: a politician who quietly got things done, achieving more than he promised. He moved effortlessly from chief secretary to the Treasury to work and pensions, then transport, then Scotland, and then industry before taking on the role of chancellor.
“It is strange sitting across from the chancellor,” I remember saying to my colleagues at the first meeting of the cabinet when I became prime minister in 2007: “Now it’s Alistair who has to say no.” Whether saying no or yes, he carried out his Treasury duties with great aplomb, admired by Treasury staff (while commendably being better at saying “No” than I was).
When I last saw Alistair he seemed to be in very good spirits and so his death only a few days after his 70th birthday is a sad blow to us all. He was deeply devoted to his family, who were at the centre of everything he did. Our deepest condolences go out to his loving wife, Maggie, with whom he enjoyed a joyous and wonderful partnership, and to their children, Calum and Anna, in whom he rightly took so much pride. He will be missed by all who knew and respected him and by the many more who benefited from the great public service he gave.
Gordon Brown was UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010