Politics is nothing like normal life and the rules are different there.
In normal life, it’s the quiet ones you have to keep an eye on, as every ashen neighbour who has ever told a TV news camera ‘he always kept himself to himself’ will attest.
In politics, it’s the loud ones that need watching. They start out class clowns or pub bores and are indulged their slapstick stunts and traddy affectations because Lord knows Parliament could do with a splash of colour here and there.
New Labour spun us into submission, followed by the Notting Hill Tories with their open necks and empty slogans. Little wonder, then, that Nigel Farage’s ‘20 Lambert and a restoration of sovereignty for the lady’ routine found a following. He shouted the loudest until enough of us concluded volume must equal authenticity.
Authenticity is the Holy Grail of populist politics, which is not a contest between left and right so much as a struggle over who is real, who is fake and who gets to decide which is which. That the mantle of authenticity heaves with chancers is almost inevitable. Politics used to be show-business for ugly people, now it’s religion for pharisees.
The high priests of phony populism are bounders like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who convinced a temperamentally sceptical public to trust their fabulist fiddle-faddle on Brexit. Now they harrumph like wilful schoolboys who threw away the instructions and are jolly miffed that Mummy is taking so long to assemble their train set.
Brexit ought to prompt hushed humility in the loud people but it should also remind us of the virtues of those who keep their counsel. Now more than ever we are in need of a few quiet men and women, the kind who forgo the Twitter fandom and busy themselves getting the job done.
One of them happened into the news briefly last week after a long absence. Alistair Darling was at Aberdeen University receiving an honorary doctorate. Lord Darling, as he now is, gave a thoughtful speech to undergraduates about the world they will soon embark on and what it will demand of them. He also had some sober analysis of the status of Brexit and after two years of juvenile bawling, it was reassuring to hear a grown-up speaking again.
Why, though, had it taken the former Chancellor’s alma mater so long to recognise him?
Darling is one of the most consequential British politicians in generations and yet this sentence might be the first time that fact has ever been written down. Some of you will be sputtering ‘steady on’ and, until recently, my reaction would have been the same. Darling was a clever man, a decent man, and he did some good things, but that was about it.
My view of his career began to change in the aftermath of the EU referendum, by which point he was no longer an MP and, while supporting a Remain vote, was not an active campaigner. The days of chaos following the result were among the most turbulent this country has seen in peacetime. The pound nosedived. The Prime Minister resigned. His likely successor changed by the day. The Opposition front bench quit en masse. Andrea Leadsom almost got the keys to Number 10.
In the middle of this mania, I sat down to write a column about the cavalcade of calamity that British politics had become. I began to type that this was the worst political crisis since the 2008 financial meltdown — then I stopped, peered at the words, and deleted them. What I had written wasn’t true.
The sub-prime mortgage collapse that sunk major US financial institutions in 2007-08 hit the City of London like a monetary monsoon. British banking, left exposed by its own overambitious mergers and lending practices, was about to be swept away. Northern Rock failed amid a bank run and the UK stared ruin in the face.
In an atmosphere of palpable panic, Darling, only in the Treasury a matter of months, went to work. He propped up Northern Rock before eventually nationalising it, prevented the implosion of the banking sector through a series of rescue packages, and kept the economy afloat with stimulus spending. It wasn’t pretty but it kept the roof from falling in. He couldn’t prevent a recession but he saved us from becoming another Greece.
The national nervous breakdown that began in the early hours of June 24, 2016 was a much worse crisis because there was no one like Darling there to take charge. However hairy things got in 2008 — and they got very hairy indeed — there was sound, reliable leadership prepared for any eventuality. Gordon Brown might have bottled an early election and become quagmired in tactics and factionalism but Darling’s light was always on in Number 11.
After Labour lost the 2010 election, he returned to the back benches having more than earned an early retirement. The election of a majority SNP government the following year meant his skills were in demand once more. He was chosen to head up Better Together, which was tasked with making the positive case for the Union and every now and then managed to do it.
Darling faced bitter resistance to his cross-party approach that brought together Labour and the Tories but he understood that a divided No camp would hand victory to the nationalists. Better Together was sometimes too clever by half and sometimes not even that but Darling made it a merciless prosecutor of the SNP’s dodgy dossier, the White Paper.
Politics being the hideous racket it is, whispering campaigns abounded — Darling wasn’t the right man for the job, he lacked the killer instinct. The night of his first live TV debate against Alex Salmond, Darling defied his critics — not with spectacle or rhetoric, but by sticking to what Sergeant Joe Friday used to call ‘just the facts, ma’am’.
I worked on that programme for weeks, attended every production meeting, and even helped write the questions. In all that time, no one who expressed a view thought Darling stood a chance against Salmond. In the end, he didn’t need a chance — he was the better man.
Darling’s strategy, in particular his emphasis on the economic case against separation, was vindicated when he led Better Together to victory on referendum night. As in the financial crash, he let others grandstand while he knuckled down to the job at hand. And as in the financial crash, he let others swoop in and claim the credit. He had done his duty, no limelight was necessary.
None of this is intended as a hagiography of Lord Darling. I think he made some serious mistakes in Number 11, not least his 50 per cent rate on those earning over £150,000. It resulted in less revenue for the Exchequer and told affluent swing voters that Labour was back to its high-taxing ways.
That, however, is a policy difference and what we are talking about is a higher matter: statesmanship. Darling is the Chancellor who saved the banks and the backbench MP who saved the Union. These twin achievements are taken for granted, or only grudgingly acknowledged, and yet they represent a legacy that most prime ministers will never manage.
They are a testament to what can be achieved in politics when committed men and women, people of even temper and good conscience, are given the opportunity of public service. They are a reminder that noisy charlatans can reach decibels but seldom greatness. ‘Authenticity’ is nothing without character.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feature image by 10 Downing Street via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.