Darling: A Political Unprincipled Opportunist
Twenty-five years ago, the man they knew as a bushy-bearded ringleader at a Loony Left council, was a supporter of the International Marxist Group, one of whose key objectives was the nationalisation of the British banking system as a first step towards full-blown Communism.
Ah ! those days of youthful folly so embarrassing to senior politicians and, usually, best left undisturbed. After all, surely a politician, no less than anyone else, is entitled to grow out of their immature ravings? True enough, but at the peak of his madcap Leftie days, Darling was hardly a youth – he was a qualified solicitor approaching his mid-30s and was just being admitted to the Scottish bar.
He was a classic family rebel, a product of Scotland’s oldest boarding school, Loretto (other old boys include the broadcaster Andrew Marr and former Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont), whose family were staunch Conservatives. His Tory-voting father was a civil engineer and his great-uncle Sir William Darling was the MP for Edinburgh South for 12 years after World War II.
But in 1982, Alistair, aged 29, was elected for Labour to Lothian Regional Council in Edinburgh, and escalated a war against capitalism that had begun with his feverish distribution of far-Left literature while reading law at Aberdeen University.
It was when the politically ambitious Darling became a councillor that Bob Thompson, another former chairman of the Scottish Labour Party, met him. ‘He was a Trotskyist and played the part with his backside sticking out of his jeans and sandals on bare feet, long hair and a beard,’ says Thompson, a lifelong trades unionist. Thus dressed for battle, Darling and his Labour colleagues dug in to take on the biggest capitalist of all – Margaret Thatcher.
These were the Loony Leftism years of ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone in London and Derek Hatton, of Militant Tendency fame, in Liverpool. According to party figures of the time, Left-wing councils across the country ‘liaised’ on a range of issues. In Edinburgh, Darling was a ringleader of the revolt against the Thatcher government’s spending cuts. Then, as now, he was no firebrand. He had little charisma and was no orator. But he was a clever fixer, a plotter, a manipulator rather than a motivator.
He was in the thick of it and certainly caught the eye of Labour’s then leader Neil Kinnock, who visited the council when it was threatening to defy the Tory government’s spending cuts by refusing to set a local rate. Kinnock’s visit helped ‘calm down’ the loonies. But as he was leaving a meeting, he remarked about one particular figure: ‘I never want to see that bearded Trot becoming an MP.’ He was referring to Darling.
According to George Galloway, another contemporary who became a Labour MP Glasgow before founding the Left-wing party Respect, it was Darling who came up with the idea of opposing the government’s spending cuts by refusing to set a rate or even agree a budget, thus plunging the local authority into illegality. It was left to him and Bill Speirs to ‘talk Alistair Darling down from the ledge of this kamikaze strategy’.
But Darling’s ideology was far deeper than merely battling with Margaret Thatcher. It covered a range of other areas of life. For example, one contemporary recalls he also had ‘an ideological hatred of cars that cost Edinburgh millions of pounds’ (an ideology that is not apparent as the Chancellor these days steps into his ministerial limousine).
As convener of his council’s transport committee, Darling is said to have ‘blocked plans to create car-parking spaces in Edinburgh, as he wanted people to leave their vehicles at home. ‘In the event, all that happened was more traffic congestion’.
He was dogmatic about his beliefs. His most controversial act as transport convener was to scrap a four-lane western approach road to the Scottish capital after contracts had been signed by the previous Tory administration. The decision cost ratepayers £2 million in fees.
Darling was aware that among many of his colleagues there was irritation and even contempt for his ‘posh’ public school background. Some thought he was a ‘public schoolboy just playing at it’. But others believe it was his privileged background that drove him to be so politically extreme. ‘He was so eager to be seen as a hard socialist that the joke was that he would carry a blank banner around with him so he could fill in the cause as required,’ says one. ‘Naturally, he was in favour of scrapping missiles.’
This deep sensitivity about his image did not diminish over the years during his political rise in which he was one of only three ministers to serve for the entire period since New Labour swept to power in 1997 – the others being Gordon Brown and Jack Straw.
he never entered the year’s he boarded at Loretto in his Who’s Who entry. So was Darling a genuine member of the Loony Left or was he merely playing a role in order to gain Left- wing support and political lift-off? John Mulvey, who was Labour’s (and Darling’s) leader of Lothian council and now director of a group targeting poverty, says: ‘He was not a dilettante – he was a person of conviction.’
And former Scottish Labour Party boss Bob Thompson says: ‘He actually believed in what he was doing. Having come from public school and university, he saw this as the proper way to help the working man. He was just too naive to realise it was the wrong way.’
So, what happened to Alistair the sandal-wearing, car-hating Loony Leftie, and when was he replaced by the blandly smooth, fastidiously attired government minister, a man who could easily be mistaken for a bank manager? Contemporaries put his metamorphosis as 1985 when he was 32 and, while still serving on the council, was making his move for a parliamentary seat. That year, a quietly dressed Alistair Darling, his beard neatly trimmed, impressed the selection committee at Edinburgh Central, and was chosen from 48 applicants.
Two years later, he defeated the sitting Tory MP. ‘Ultimately, he was an opportunist,’ says Bob Thompson. ‘When he got into Parliament, he wasn’t saying anything particularly radical. He was going along with the party’s agenda.’ Some time later, when there was a Burns Night supper in his constituency, Darling introduced the gathering to a rising star of the party – Tony Blair, the Shadow Employment Secretary. ‘They were obviously close,’ says Thompson, who was there. ‘What I remember most is that Blair stood and spoke for 20 minutes without mentioning Burns once.
‘So far as I was concerned, Alistair Darling had gone from Trotskyist to New Labour overnight.’ After the 1997 New Labour triumph, Darling shaved off his beard and presented himself, in accordance with party instructions, as clean-shaven. ‘Alistair’s problem is that he takes his opinion from whoever’s his boss,’ says Thompson. ‘In the early Eighties, it was John Mulvey (his Lothian council boss), then it was Tony Blair and the it was Gordon Brown. He’s a man with no opinion of his own. But he’s done well, I’ll give him that.’
Afternote: The Queen elevated Darling even further in 2014 awarding him a life peerage in recognition for his long service and good conduct in the service of her Unionist governments of every political persuasion. The man who sold out his nation gets his reward