Clapped into the Treasury in June 2007, the new chancellor Alistair Darling was picked as a safe pair of hands, cast in the new Labour mould of managerial ministers.
Darling’s old friend from Scottish politics, Gordon Brown, had been impressed by his smooth running of the transport department, keeping it off the front pages after a series of scandals and disasters. So successful had he been at the DfT, trucking magazine voted Darling the “most boring politician” two years in a row.
A lawyer by background, Darling, who died on Tuesday aged 70 after suffering from cancer, recalled the economic landscape as he entered the Treasury to be “extraordinarily tranquil”. For the first time in his career, he was inheriting a government department that was “actually not a mess”.
New Labour claimed with some confidence at the time that it had put an end to boom and bust in the UK economy.
Little did Darling, Treasury officials, Brown or the British public know that the new silver-haired chancellor with distinctive black eyebrows would soon be a central character in the global financial crisis.
Darling recalled that his first inkling that things might not be a breeze at the Treasury came a few weeks later, when he was reading the Financial Times on holiday in Mallorca. He noticed a report that a French bank had closed three of its funds and another saying that there were concerns about a German regional bank. “The stories made me stand stock still,” he said, before being reassured by officials.
Four weeks later, the bank Northern Rock imploded. Darling was thrust unexpectedly into the limelight, becoming one of the most consequential postwar chancellors in modern British history.
The crisis was the making of Darling’s personal and professional reputation and one, according to colleagues, he handled with great calm in some very dark moments.
The Northern Rock saga dragged on for a year as storm clouds grew across the Atlantic. By the summer of 2008, Darling knew the economic outlook was grave. As a politician who believed in being straight with the public, he gave an interview describing the economic prospects for the UK and the world as “arguably the worst they’ve been in 60 years”.
With Brown doggedly sticking to a narrative that the UK was not about to slide into recession (we later found out one had started early in 2008), Number 10 was furious. The spin operation in the following days unleashed the “forces of hell” against Darling, he later said, but he managed to hang on to his job.
More than that, within weeks, the bond between prime minister and chancellor had been patched up sufficiently for the pair to unleash their own economic innovations, both domestically and internationally, in an ultimately successful bid to prevent the financial crisis spiralling into a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
That autumn Darling recapitalised and in effect nationalised the two largest UK banks — Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds. He ditched fiscal rules that had survived a decade and primed the economy with what was then a highly unusual fiscal stimulus. The deficit rose to its highest level in peacetime. Still, the 2008-09 recession was the UK’s deepest since the 1920s.
Internationally, in the run-up to the spring 2009 London G20 summit, Brown and Darling persuaded international powers to follow suit as they co-ordinated a global response.
Officials remember his unusual style in making decisions. Never seeking to avoid responsibility, he would hear the arguments of civil servants — so long as they were not too theoretical — then send them out of the room and calmly take a decision. Many of these choices were uncomfortable, such as his pre-Budget report in 2009 in which he raised national insurance, raided City bonuses and took an axe to public spending plans, announcing much of the austerity that would be implemented by his successor in Number 11, George Osborne.
The straight talking, which had not been evident in earlier roles at the trade, work and pensions, Scotland and transport ministries endeared him to the public. It was the trust he built up as chancellor that made him the natural choice to lead the cross-party No campaign in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
He told the BBC he was handed the job because no one else wanted to do it, but the choice worked with the No side winning 55 per cent of the vote. Darling said the campaign was one of his proudest achievements.
His adversary was Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National party, who recognised Darling as a “formidable campaigner”. Their intense debates gripped the nation, with Darling’s criticism of the SNP’s incoherence over what currency an independent Scotland would adopt helping to sway the vote in No’s favour.
The result, however, was closer than Darling or others in the campaign had expected. The bitterness of the campaign led to many Yes supporters turning to the SNP, which resulted in the loss of all but one of Labour’s 41 Scottish seats in the 2015 general election.
Darling was born in 1953 in London and educated at the private Loretto School outside Edinburgh. He studied law at Aberdeen university, graduating in 1976 and soon afterwards joining the Labour party. He was elected to Lothian Regional Council in 1982 and became the MP for Edinburgh Central in 1987.
He did not stand in the 2015 election and was created a life peer as Baron Darling of Roulanish, a village on his beloved Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
He was respected on all sides of politics, with Osborne saying on Thursday: “The thing about Alistair Darling is people said nice things about Alistair to his face when he was alive, and they say nice things about him now that he’s so tragically passed.”
For the Labour party, although he had his disputes with Brown, he was always a team player with no suggestion he was eyeing a promotion to Number 10.
Darling’s greatest love was not politics, but his family and friends. He was characterised by his devotion to his wife Maggie and their children Calum and Anna, his appreciation of good food and wine, and his kindness, sometimes tinged with an acerbic wit.
His family hired a digger as a present for his 60th birthday so he could spend the afternoon digging holes in the countryside and filling them back in. It marked the man: a family knowing what he most liked, an ironic economic reference and the love of the land.