Alistair Darling, Guiding Hand in Britain’s Financial Crisis, Dies at 70


Alistair Darling, a British lawmaker and cabinet minister who played a leading role in his country’s response to the 2008 global financial crisis, rescuing troubled banks with huge injections of public money that staved off a broader economic collapse, died on Thursday at a hospital in Edinburgh. He was 70.

The cause was cancer, his family said.

Mr. Darling had joked that valedictory tributes after his death would describe him as a steady pair of hands in the credit crisis that began in 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Bros in the United States and that sent shock waves through the world’s banks.

The remark was on the money. In an obituary on Thursday, the BBC said Mr. Darling became “best known as the steady pair of hands who shepherded the U.K. economy as half its banking system collapsed,” noting his moves to rescue British banking giants, especially the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Just before the crisis, in 2007, Gordon Brown, Britain’s Labour prime minister at the time, elevated Mr. Darling to chancellor of the Exchequer, the government’s most senior official in charge of the nation’s finances. Until then, Mr. Darling had held a series of government offices at the Treasury and at ministries dealing with welfare, pensions, trade and transport.

In times of crisis, “Alistair was the person you would want in the room because he was calm and he was considered and he had great integrity,” Mr. Brown said.

The remark contrasted with Mr. Darling’s assessment of Mr. Brown’s management. In an autobiography published after Labour was defeated in 2010, Mr. Darling said there had been a “permanent air of chaos and crisis” in Mr. Brown’s administration.

The global crisis carved deep economic scars. “My initial reaction must have been a bit like that of the captain of the Titanic when he was told by the ship’s architect that it would sink in a couple of hours,” Mr. Darling wrote. “There were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers.”

Britain’s banking woes began with a run on the regional Northern Rock bank, a frenzy that officials sought to counter with injections of government funds.

Even at that time, Britain’s economic conditions were “arguably the worst they have been in 60 years,” Mr. Darling said in a newspaper interview, and the malaise would be “more profound and long-lasting than people thought.” His comments drew howls of protest from Mr. Brown’s supporters.

As the crisis unfolded, though, Mr. Darling said later in a broadcast interview, his “scariest” moment came one morning during the crisis when a top executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland told him that the bank would run out of money that very afternoon — a near-unthinkable prospect for a financial institution that ranked with the world’s biggest.

“What was in my mind at that point is that if people thought the biggest bank in the world had failed, there would not be a bank in the western world that would be safe,” he said.

Mr. Darling won widespread kudos for his handling of the crisis. But his subsequent political career was marked by feuding with Mr. Brown over post-crisis spending, with Mr. Darling seeking to impose some kind of limits. In the event, the Labour Party was voted out of office in 2010, and it went into opposition.

Mr. Darling carved out new, bipartisan ground by campaigning along with Conservative politicians against the notion of Scottish independence. Opponents of secession won a referendum in 2014, but Scots turned against Labour in favor of the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

Mr. Darling, ennobled in 2015 as Baron Darling of Roulanish and becoming a member of the House of Lords, campaigned unsuccessfully to oppose Britain’s Brexit departure from the European Union. He retired from that upper chamber in 2020.

Alastair Maclean Darling was born on Nov. 28, 1953, in London. He was the eldest of four children of Thomas and Anna (Maclean) Darling. His father was a civil engineer. He studied law in Scotland at the University of Aberdeen, where he had a reputation as a Marxist. He joined the Labour Party in 1977 and was elected to the British Parliament a decade later.

In 1986, he married a journalist, Margaret Vaughan, and they had two children, Calum and Anna.

Labour won a landslide victory under Mr. Blair’s leadership in 1997, and Mr. Darling became associated with the so-called New Labour reformist wing of the party clustered around Mr. Blair. Former colleagues on Thursday said he had a dry wit and a reputation for what Brian Wilson, a former Labour minister, called “a good moral and political compass.”

Strikingly, though, his political foes in the Conservative government offered unusual praise. Mr. Darling had been “one of the great chancellors,” said Jeremy Hunt, the current chancellor of the Exchequer, adding that he did “the right thing for the country at a time of extraordinary turmoil.”

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