Thursday, 13 October 2011

Alistair Darling, Back from the Brink

This book treats of time after I left the House, which I did in 2005, so while I knew most of the participants in it, I was not there for the events.  The "brink" Darling refers to is the financial crisis of 2008, what led up to it, and what happened during it.  Darling was Chancellor and so ought to know what happened, and it appears that indeed he did.  I have always had time and respect for Alistair, seeing him as an intelligent politician who, crucially, will not be most influenced by the last person who spoke to him, and who does not go in for telling people what they want to hear.  This last makes it interesting that he was trusted and promoted by both Tony and Gordon, though more so by Gordon.  While never emotional, Darling starts right in with the vileness of politics, or more properly of the media's meddling in it: in the acknowledgements he thanks Charlie Falconer for shelter on "one particuarly dark evening".  Those of us who have been in politics know what THAT means.  And he starts straight out by slagging off Gordon.  No messing.  but not personal either.  Civil servants had, he says, identified in early 2007 "a lack of legislation" to deal with the eventuality of a bank failure" (p. 10).  Hmmm.  "Tony... became distracted from domestic affairs at just the time when he still had  a mandate to carry through the reforms needed to improve public services" (p. 11).  "Every building society that had given up mutual ownership to become a public company during the 1980s either failed or was taken over" (p. 18).  The punctuation in this book is a bit dodgy.  I am a professional editor, and it made my eyes water from time to time.  His writing style is easy reading, fairly fluent, very clear, and just a tiny bit dull.  A bit like Alistair himself as a politician perhaps.  I don't know him well enough personally to be able to describe the man.  "By now [late 2007] the Federal Reserve and the ECB had been flooding their systems with cash" (p. 61) - and the UK wasn't.  He blames Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, consistently, right through the book.  Do Chancellors usually fall out with governors of the Bank?  They generally do with prime ministers, that much is historically factual.

Darling gave a Budget speech, and, returning to the Treasury, did the "traditonal round of calls to newspaper and political editors" (p. 61) - this is starting to look a bit old-fashioned in these days of live tweeting speeches in Parliament.

I didn't understand, and Darling does not explain, why increasing personal allowances for basic-rate taxpayers was going to be a political disaster, make the poorest even poorer, and help Labour lose Crewe to the Tories in the by-election which followed the death of Gwyneth Dunwoody (now there was a nasty cow).  P. 90: "the [Japanese] ambassador did say to me that it was believed it was only a matter of time before Japan would be hit by a large earthquake".  Leaving aside the grammar of that sentence, which is forgivable because the ambassador was probably speaking to Darling in good but imperfect English (incidentally when Japanese people say the word "earthquake" in English it is pronounced "arse-quick"), all Japanese ambassadors and government figures have been saying this to all British ministers and VIP visitors to their country since 1868.  And what does "a matter of time" mean?  It is a geological truism.  Japan has earthquakes all the time, and some of them are large ones.  Sharpen up, Alistair.  Darling gives big respect (p. 92) to DSK (Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for those with short memories) who, he says, understands the economic needs of smaller nations.  Greece, anyone?

Darling notes "the US president, though the most powerful man in the world, cannot automatically get what he wants at home.  He has to horsetrade.  In contrast, when I effectively wrote a cheque to buy £50bn of bank shares in the UK, I did not even have to get specific parliamentary authority to do so.  We could act overnight." (p. 118).  He notes in this context a little later (p. 188) that at a finance ministers' dinner he attended it emerged he was the only one who was an elected member of a parliament.  Another person there asked him "How can you take the big decisions if you have to think of the voters?".  His reply was "How can you take the big decisions if you don't?"  On saving banks, he appears to blame the US: "...the US had sent a clear signal: it would not step in to save a failed bank:  the markets therefore assumed that if Lehmans was allowed to collapse, the same could happen to other banks" (p. 124).

He is very sound on the irrational nature of the markets, and of the role of confidence in the economy.  He cites a high-street jeweller, in Reading as it happens, who said that he was OK despite the state of the economy, because the economy had been out of the newspapers for the past few days, and so people had more confidence (p.206).  It really is that simple a lot of the time.

Darling becomes very interesting indeed on the beginning of the collapse of the Labour government, which of course happened as soon as Tony left.  Ha, yes it did, everything else is semantics.  "Unless what you have to say has a strong ring of truth, people stop listening." (p. 218).  He is very clear that the old battle lines, and Labour's presentation of itself, were out of date after 2007, and needed to be changed.  "We did not have effective Cabinet government for the thirteen years we were in power.  It is a mistake we should not repeat." (p. 222).

More maliciously yet, Darling did not (p. 277) warn Gordon about the Hoon-Hewitt plot against him, because he was still angry about Gordon's briefings against him.  He says in the epilogue that the Brownite insurrection in the autumn of 2006 was what finally pushed Tony into going in 2007.  I'm not so sure.

Read this book if you care at all about British politics in the early 21st century.  It makes quite an important contribution, largely because it does not take any polemical positions.  It could have been a diatribe against Gordon Brown, and Alistair Darling surely knows more than he has said about Gordon's dysfunctionality, but is all the better for not being that. 

Get the book here.


Jonathan said...

Increasing the personal allowance was a disaster because it was paid for by abolishing the 10% band making people who were a bit over the breadline level worse off.

Anonymous said...

Interesting review - and now I'm not going to get the book - probably because it does feel dull - although worthy as you say.

Anonymous said...

Not exactly the right place except that they are both politicians and I can't be bothered to scroll back and find the DSK entries --- but, delighted that the ridiculous rape charge dredged up from an incident 8 years ago has now been dropped. Of course, it should never have been taken seriously - and the charges in America should never have been brought.

Politics is a murky buisness. Happy now Sego? Francois? - or whoever in his own party stuck the knife into the most effective and credible French socialist politician.

Anonymous said...

DS Khan now under investigation in France for possible involvement child prostitution!!!

When will it all stop?

I suppose it shows how feared he is by political nonentities -- but he could do without it!!

Anonymous said...

Would somebody please tell me what the hell has happened to the French Socialist Party?

Don't they take the Presidential Elections seriously?

Do they really think that the candidacy can be rotated between that ridiculous Punch and Judy pair, Sego and Francois?

And now we will see Sego try to sabotage it because he wrecked her 'go' last time. So what next time -- are any of their kids old enough to stand?!

What a mockery of democracy. I only hope that the Labour Party doesn't catch on - or perhaps it has; you can have this brother or that brother. Or this husband or that wife.

Yuuk .

Can someone dig up Dieu - and Harold and bring Tony back from exile. Please?

dreamingspire said...

In 2007 Tony had completed 10 years in charge. Backtracking a bit, at end 2004 he scrapped a govt reorganisaion plan, and it has been suggested to me that was because he feared the 2005 election - it was the 10 year thing again.
Some of the people who planned in 2004 are back in the team now. Its happening, as Cameron said before his triumph it would if they got in.

Anonymous said...

Dreaming Spire - what is happening?
Are you endorsing Cameron?