When the television debates on Scottish independence were announced in the early summer, many observers suggested that Alistair Darling would be a lamb to the slaughter, with Alex Salmond playing the wolf. Salmond, after all, is renowned for his unforgiving political style, ably dodging tricky questions and asking quite a few of his own.
Darling wasn’t quite written off as a meek and mild observer in the independence campaign: no man who served as chancellor of the exchequer through the worst economic downturn in living memory could be accused of that. But he certainly wasn’t expected to beat Salmond on the stump or in debates; he was perhaps too genteel, too Westminster, too aloof. Even his surname reminds many of us of the ineffectual character from Blackadder Goes Forth, dodging danger and responsibility at every turn.
That was an underestimate, however. After the two men’s first debate, even Alex Salmond looked stunned to have been given such a hiding.
Notwithstanding a more chaotic and belligerent second debate, Darling has shown a steely determination throughout the campaign. That has surprised some commentators and viewers, but has also confirmed to many of us what we already knew about him: he was and remains a force to be reckoned with.
Good times, bad times
Before entering Parliament in 1987, Darling made his living as many politicians do, as a lawyer. He won the Edinburgh Central seat at the 1987 general election, the year of Thatcher’s third election victory, and served his time on the Labour party backbenches until the May 1997 win under the leadership of Blair.
He entered the cabinet as chief secretary to the treasury, before moving to become secretary of state for social security in 1998 – both solid jobs for a promising up-and-comer within the party. Until 2007, Darling then held a series of important but middle-ranking ministerial jobs – transport, minister for Scotland and then secretary of state for trade and industry. With the arrival of Gordon Brown in No 10 Downing Street, there was a vacancy at No 11 and Darling moved in.
Almost immediately, he faced a devil of a job when the American sub-prime market collapsed. Gone, suddenly, were the boom times; instead, there was a run on Northern Rock, other banks came within hours of collapse and a cataclysmic economic collapse seemed imminent.
Not a job for the faint-hearted. But Darling stayed true to his and his party’s principles. He indisputably kept a steady hand in deeply uncertain times, whether or not you agree with the government’s precise approach to the crisis. His overall handling of it was generally good, and at the very least, he managed to avoid making a bad situation worse – perhaps all that could be asked of anyone in such dire circumstances.
Darling remained at the treasury until the 2010 general election removed the party from power. After leaving government, he returned to the backbenches until the Scottish referendum details were announced – and in June 2012 he became chair of the Better Together campaign.
Throughout the referendum, Darling has worked closely with colleagues from both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. That has earned him more than his fair share of criticism from the Yes camp, but is surely necessary in such circumstances.
He has once again served as a steady hand, bringing his economic expertise to bear time and time again, persistently asking awkward questions of Salmond and trying masterfully to dismantle the jingoism of the Yes campaign – while they in return cast him and his campaign as pessimistic traitors to the Scottish dream.
A place in history
So, what will Darling be doing once the voting is over and the reflection can begin? Regardless of the result, he will be considered to have basically done a good job, a solid job, a valiant job. If Scotland remains part of the UK, he would almost certainly become a member of the House of Lords in the not-too-distant future. In the event of a No vote, the timing would depend on whether he decided to stand as an MP in the 2015 general election for his current seat, Edinburgh South.
Would he stand in the Scottish parliament? I don’t think so. As the leader of Better Together, he clearly has a personal link to the wider union. He was also born in London. In the event of a Yes vote, his integrity would be shot to hell if he decided to join a parliament he fought so hard to resist. And even in the event of a No vote, a move to Holyrood seems unlikely. He’s made his career at Westminster and even a Devo-Max parliament won’t rival Westminster’s power. I think he will see out his career in Westminster, where he has spent nearly 30 years.
If the referendum does yield a Yes vote, it will not have been for want of trying on Darling’s part. As with his time as chancellor, he has been thrust into a difficult situation and has acted with poise and professionalism to make the best of a tricky situation. As a Scot himself, he cannot find it easy to be painted as against Scotland or somehow lacking confidence in Scotland’s capacity as a nation.
He has worked with political friend and foe to defend the Union, which he believes is still best for both Scotland and the rest of the UK. The polls remain too close to call or slightly in favour of No – and he managed more than once to give Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign a bloody nose along the way.