Thursday, September 04, 2008

Decca Aitkenhead ignores Alistair Darling's Trotskyite past

This week's Private Eye has some fun with the account of his youthful politics that Alistair Darling was allowed to get away with in his widely reported interview in last Saturday's Guardian.

According to Decca Aitkenhead, the reporter who interviewed him:

Studying law at Aberdeen, he stood for election in the student union, but not for a party. "I was just quite interested in getting things done." His manifesto favoured "strictly bread-and-butter issues, things like food prices in the student refectory". When he joined the Labour party in 1977, he never expected to be more than a member. "I was enjoying becoming a lawyer."

He'd simply realised, he explains, that "if you want to make any changes, there's only one way you can do it, and that's by getting into a position where you can influence things. And the obvious thing to do seemed to be to join a party." Why Labour?

"Just... I suppose, overall, I thought the Tories were unfair. They were only for one side, and not for everyone. The Labour party just seemed to reflect my outlook on life - you know, that we were better working together - fairness, helping everyone to get on, rather than just a few.

This is nonsense. As Private Eye points out, before he joined Labour Darling was a member of the Trotskyite International Marxist Group and went on to be a hard-left council leader in the mould of Ted Knight or Derek Hatton.

So extreme was he that the Labour establishment sent George Galloway along to talk to him as a force for moderation.

In fact Galloway told this story in a characteristically entertaining style in an article for the Daily Record earlier this year:

When I first met him 35 years ago Darling was pressing Trotskyite tracts on bewildered railwaymen at Waverley Station in Edinburgh. He was a supporter of the International Marxist Group, whose publication was entitled the Black Dwarf.

Later, in preparation for his current role he became the treasurer of what was always termed the rebel Lothian Regional Council. Faced with swinging government spending cuts which would have decimated the council services or electorally ruinous increases in the rates, Alistair came up with a creative wheeze.

The council, he said, should refuse to set a rate or even agree a budget at all, plunging the local authority into illegality and a vortex of creative accounting leading to bankruptcy.

Surprisingly, this strategy had some celebrated friends. There was "Red Ted" Knight, the leader of Lambeth council, in London, and Red Ken Livingstone newly elected leader of Greater London Council. Red Ally and his friends around the Black Dwarf were for a time a colourful part of the Scottish left.

The late Ron Brown, Red Ronnie as he was known, was Alistair's bosom buddy. He was thrown out of Parliament for placing a placard saying hands off Lothian Region on Mrs Thatcher's despatch box while she was addressing the House. And Darling loved it at the time.

The former Scottish trade union leader Bill Speirs and I were dispatched by the Scottish Labour Party to try and talk Alistair Darling down from the ledge of this kamikaze strategy, pointing out that thousands of workers from home helps to headteachers would lose their jobs as a result and that the council leaders - including him - would be sequestrated, bankrupted and possibly incarcerated. How different things might have been.

Anyway, I well remember Red Ally's denunciation of myself as a "reformist", then just about the unkindest cut I could have imagined.

I suppose we should be shocked that Darling gave such a misleading account of his political career, but I am afraid that politicians have fallen so low in public esteem that few will be.

But what can we say in defence of Aitkenhead? Did she really not know about Darling's background? It is hardly a secret. If she didn't know, why didn't she do a little research? It was not hard to find Galloway's article with Google. And if she did know the truth, why did she allow Darling to get away with it?

Never mind moody photographs of your subject among the stones of Callanish: just tell your readers the truth.


Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this - that part of Darling's interview seemed fishy even on first reading.
Ignorable quibbles:
(1) How can it be “this week’s Private Eye” when the magazine is (I think) still a fortnightly publication?
(2) What is “the Decca Aitkenhead”? An aitkenhead manufactured by Decca?

Anonymous said...

One thing that strikes me from this is the paucity of imagination people had when assigning epithets to lefties: Red Ally, Red Ted, Red Ken, Red Ronnie. Is this truely the best they could come up with?

Jonathan Calder said...


I think (1) is perfectly acceptable idiom. I have corrected (2). Thanks.

I have also given the posting a less sententious and more informative title.