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British Labour Politician
Born 1953

Alistair Darling was the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh Central between 1987 and 2005 and after that Edinburgh South West and has since the 28th June 2007 held the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Along with Gordon Brown and Jack Straw, he is one of only three ministers who have consistently served in the Labour cabinet since 1997, and has the accolade of twice being voted the most boring politician in Britain, a considerable achievement given the stiff competition involved.

Early Life and Career

Born Alistair Maclean Darling on the 28th November 1953 in London, his father was an engineer who had something of a peripatetic career, which is why young Alistair attended no less than seven different primary schools. It might also explain why he was then sent to the Loretto School at Musselburgh (a posh Scottish boarding school) after which he attended the University of Aberdeen where he studied law. After graduation he became a solicitor in Edinburgh in 1978, but abandoned that profession in 1982 when he decided to study for the bar and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1984, and came to take his place in what is regarded as the liberal minded Edinburgh legal establishment.

Although his father appears to have been a Conservative, and indeed his great uncle William Darling was at one time the Conservative MP for Edinburgh South, Alistair's politics were more inclined to the Labour Party. His first step on the political ladder came in 1982 when he was elected as a councillor to the Falkirk District Council, where he later became Chairman of the Council's Transport Committee. He was also elected as councillor to the Lothian Regional Council in 1986 and became a board member for the Lothian and Borders Police.

Alistair stood for Parliament at Edinburgh Central in the General Election of 1987 when he defeated the sitting Conservative Alexander Fletcher, after which he was rapidly promoted to the frontbench when he was appointed the Opposition spokesman for Home Affairs by Neil Kinnock in 1988. There he remained until after the 1992 General Election when he became the Opposition spokesman for Treasury Economic Affairs and the City, until being promoted to the Shadow Cabinet by Tony Blair as the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury in July 1996.

Government Career

Following the General Election of 1997 he joined the Cabinet as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and was one of the senior Labour figures sent on a tour of City boardrooms in a bid to reassure them over the party's intentions. According to the BBC he also "moved rapidly to put into place wide-ranging reforms designed to improve regulation of banking and financial services after the collapses of Barings and BCCI."

As it turned out his time at the Treasury was brief, as in July 1998 he was made the Secretary of State for Social Security as the replacement for Harriet Harman, widely regarded as being a complete failure in that role. After the General Election of June 2001 he then became the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, which combined his old job with the added responsibility for employment transferred from the old Department of Education and Employment. Throughout this period he established a reputation for "mastering the fine detail" and more importantly for being 'on-message'. Once again failure elsewhere proved to be his opportunity as in May 2002 Stephen Byers felt obliged to resign as the Secretary of State for Transport and Alistair was parachuted in as the safe pair of hands with the instruction from Tony Blair to "get transport off the front pages". He appears to have been succesfull in this objective and even managed to cancel a series a high-profile tram schemes in Leeds, Liverpool and Hampshire, which had originally been trumpeted as part of the government's ten-year transport plan without anyone really noticing. He also managed to re-invent (or at least repackage) the system of rail regulation and introduced the big idea of national road pricing; a policy which was later quietly abandoned when an online petition against the policy was supported by more than 1.8 million people.

In 2003 he was given the additional responsibility for Scottish affairs (and therefore became known as the Minister for Docks and Jocks), and in the Cabinet reshuffle of May 2006 was promoted to being the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. There he was a supporter of free trade and argued that globalisation was "a force for good". He also introduced plans for a new generation of nuclear power stations and confirmed sweeping cuts to the country's network of post offices.

Chancellor of the Exchequer

As had been widely predicted when former Chancellor Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, he appointed Darling as his replacement on the 28th June, since Alistair had long been one of Brown's staunchest supporters, so much so that he had been rather dismissively referred to by Polly Toynbee in The Guardian as "Just Gordon Brown's mouthpiece". However being propelled to what is customarily regarded as the number two position in the government, might well be regarded as something of a mixed blessing from Alistair's point of view, as whilst HM Treasury had emerged as the dominant force in domestic policy during the time that Gordon Brown was Chancellor, this was naturally a situation that could not be tolerated once the same Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Indeed there appears every indication that HM Treasury is being "slowly and painfully neutered by Number 10"; or as one 'insider' put it; "I pity the poor chap who ends up as Gordon's Chancellor."

Once appointed as Chancellor Alistair appeared to develop an interest in the state of Britain's housing market. In July 2007 he announced his intention of creating a regime for covered bonds, with the intenion of helping mortgage lenders make buying a house more affordable by enabling them to offer fixed rate mortgages over twenty to twenty-five year. He then gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph published on the 13th September, in which he criticised Britain's banks for recklessly lending money to consumers and for using complicated investment vehicles without considering the risks. There was a certain prophetic quality to these words, as very soon the banking institution known as the Northern Rock began experiencing problems as a result of its reckless lending to consumers and use of complicated investment vehicles, thereby triggering the first run on a British bank seen for over a century. An event which led the cynics to point out that perhaps the "wide-ranging reforms" he had helped put in place back in 1997 hadn't really improved matters.

Losing a bank might be said to be rather unfortunate, however he was also faced with the far more pressing problem of the scale of financial challenges he'd inherited from his predecessor. As the Office for National Statistics revealed on the 20th November, the government was expected to incur a financial deficit of some £40 billion in the current financial year, and was now borrowing more money than at any time since Labour came to power in 1997. As it happened no one paid that much attention to the news of the size of the government deficit, as news of the loss of the personal records of some twenty-five million Child Benefit records by HMRC (see Datagate) attracted far more media coverage and led to a number of calls for his resignation. It was perhaps fortunate for Alistair that the government then became engulfed in the far more exciting Donorgate scandal, which enabled him to adopt a suitably low profile.


Darling has been married to the journalist Margaret McQueen Vaughan since 1986 and together they have one son and one daughter. He is great friend of the crime writer Ian Rankin, who has spoken of Alistair's love of Coldplay and Pink Floyd, whilst he is also apparently a fan of Fawlty Towers and has named the family cat Sybil. Others have however suggested that he has much in common with his hapless namesake Captain Darling of Blackadder fame.


SOURCES

  • Official biographies at
    http://www.number10.gov.uk/output/page1386.asp
    http://www.alistairdarlingmp.org.uk/
    http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/about/ministerial_profiles/minprofile_darling.cfm
  • Profile: Alistair Darling, BBC News, 29 May, 2002 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/1179283.stm
  • Profile: Alistair Darling, BBC News, 5 May 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4977670.stm
  • Matthew Tempest, Profile: Alistair Darling, The Guardian, June 28, 2007 http://politics.guardian.co.uk/gordonbrown/story/0,,2113938,00.html
  • David Hencke, Profile: Alistair Darling, The Guardian, October 10, 2007 http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/oct/10/politics.economicpolicy1
  • Helen Rumbelow, Philip Webster and James Harding
    Alistair Darling: The man who stepped into limelight on the darkest of all Mondays, The Times September 22, 2007
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article2508042.ece
  • Rachel Sylvester, The Chancellor who likes to say yes, Daily Telegraph 06/11/2007
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml;jsessionid=5T0XATZWQQBPZQFIQMFCFFOAVCBQYIV0?xml=/opinion/2007/11/06/do0601.xml

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