Today’s politicians should look to these honourable men as role models - Susan Dalgety

Alistair Darling in Edinburgh in September 2014Alistair Darling in Edinburgh in September 2014
Alistair Darling in Edinburgh in September 2014
Edinburgh lost two political giants last week. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the former Conservative MP for Edinburgh West and Lothian MSP, died aged 81. And Alistair Darling, who latterly represented Edinburgh South West and served as an MP from 1992 to 2015, died aged only 70 after a short illness.

Both men were political heavyweights, with similar career trajectories. Lord James, the second son of the Duke of Hamilton, was a lawyer before beginning his political career in 1972 as an Edinburgh councillor.

Alistair Darling too began his working life as a solicitor, before becoming a councillor on Lothian Region in 1982. And both men ended their political careers as peers of the realm.

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They may have been members of opposing parties – Lord James a traditional one-nation Tory, and Alistair Darling a scion of New Labour – but both men were almost universally loved and respected, as much by their opposition colleagues as by their own parties. Different personalities perhaps, but both honourable men who conducted themselves with dignity and decency throughout their careers.

Lord James Douglas-HamiltonLord James Douglas-Hamilton
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Lord James may have been an old-school Tory, but he was as comfortable in Wester Hailes, which he visited several times as housing minister, as he was in Holyrood Palace.

I know several civil servants who worked with him, and years after he had left government, they still spoke warmly of his consideration towards them, even when he was under pressure. George Foulkes, former Labour MP and fellow peer, described Lord James as “one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. We were at university, on Edinburgh Corporation and in parliament together and although in different parties friends for life.”

Similarly, Alastair Darling carried himself with the same grace in the hallowed corridors of the Treasury as he did at public meetings in Broomhouse. “It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with him,” recalls former Broomhouse councillor, Frank Russell.

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And Lisa Mackenzie, a former civil servant who worked with him at the then Department of Social Security remembers him as “a thoroughly decent, hard-working professional with a wonderful dry wit”.

Contrast both men with today’s generation of politicians. The callous buffoonery of Boris Johnson as thousands died during the worst of the pandemic. Rishi Sunak’s rudeness towards the Greek Prime Minister last week, when he cancelled a meeting because he didn’t want to talk about the Parthenon sculptures. And Michael Matheson’s contempt for the truth over his £11,000 mobile data bill.

Members of both parliaments mistake insults and shouting for political debate, often barely able to hide their personal disdain for each other. And many of them struggle to connect with voters, treating them as a necessary evil, their passport to a glittering career and a generous salary.

Society has changed almost beyond recognition since Lord James and Alistair Darling were first elected to public office as councillors. It is less deferential, for one thing. Aggression and the ability to lie are now seen as strengths.

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But our public life would be so much better if today’s politicians were to look to people like them as role models, rather than Donald Trump. Both men served their city and their country well, with honour. They will be sorely missed.