Back From The Brink: A review

(c) firthcycles

Tom Bailey

In ‘Back from The Brink’, Alistair Darling’s recently published autobiography, the former Chancellor sets out his many challenges whilst at the Treasury. It was certainly one of the most dreadful inheritances at that office. The account both details the economic challenges facing him and hits out against both the stupidity of bankers and the failures of politicians across all parties.

It is one of the more enjoyable inside accounts of New Labour, both lucidly written and well peppered with anecdotes. Tony Blair’s book, which has become the reading of choice for the upper echelons of the incumbent Tories, was ruined by the approach of the last hundred or so pages of the book. At this point, it should have been re-titled something along the lines of ‘Gordon failed because he was not ME’.

Blair’s charge has been convincingly dimissed by Medhi Hasan. In contrast to Blair’s account, Darling gives Brown generous credit for his successes as well as lashing out against his failings. Peter Mandelson’s memoirs were rich in gossip that was instantly forgettable and deserved Ed Miliband’s dismissal. Darling’s version has a good balance of reflections on the failures of Labour under both Blair and Brown and goes into depth on economic issues but not to the extent that it becomes a text suitable only for academics or policy wonks.The book has certain flaws of detail and has the inevitable element of self-indulgence but not to the extent of other political memoirs

The revelations of Brown’s style of government, as both dictatorial and through a cabal of advisers, are not novel but the extent of the problems is staggering. The evidence reinforces the sense that Gordon Brown was no longer fit to be Prime Minister and so that Labour was not suitable for government. Amongst the low moments are the Damian McBride disgrace (which demonstrated that Labour’s ‘moral compass had irremediably lost its bearings’), the chaos of the 10% tax rate band and the HMRC lost data disks. Beyond these specific events, Darling wrote that Number 10 had ‘a permanent air of chaos and crisis’.

Brown comes across as disorganised, temperamental and a Machiavellian schemer who did not trust his Chancellor. Darling allocates Brown’s distrust of his chancellor to a sense that the Chancellor was in tow to the civil servants of the Treasury. Given Brown’s own ruthless conduct as Chancellor, perhaps it was because he knew how much havoc No. 11 could cause for a prime minister. The criticism of Brown is tempered however, by the less reported recognition that much of the essential Labour response to the economic crash was correct. The re-capitalisation was expensive but preferable to economic meltdown and Brown’s work on international co-operation was excellent, an act of leadership sorely missing in the present stage of the crisis.

As would obviously be expected, economic policy is discussed throughout the book. While Tory commentators have commented on the lack of recognition by Darling of the problems of Labour policy, the book contains a balanced account of both what Labour got wrong and right. One highlight is chapter 8 in which Darling sets out a detailed critique of the many flaws of the coalition’s narrative of the economic failings of Labour. Within this he also makes the case for government intervention, pointing to what it achieved in terms of preventing a complete economic collapse and stopping unemployment from booming as expected (estimates were that it could rise as high as 4.5 million but fortunately the peak was closer to 2.5 million).

One debate that rises repeatedly was the divide over whether or not to present the 2010 general election as a choice between Labour investment and Tory cuts. This was never adequately resolved. As a consequence, Darling argued, the Labour message lacked a ‘coherent argument’ and so lacked economic credibility. Since the book’s publication, The Economist attacked the current Labour high command for their continued absence of a plan – on the one hand officially supporting the Darling plan but also opposing most Tory cuts. However, Darling’s claim that cuts equate with credibility has been challenged. For instance, Larry Elliott of The Guardian argued that, in the light of repeated downward revisions of growth estimates and higher than expected government borrowing under George Osborne, perhaps Balls and Brown’s desire to spend the way out of the recession was the better path. The argument that 2010 was too early for austerity is certainly growing credence.

Further to the debates over economic policy, Darling’s account has resparked debate over why nothing was done to evict Brown. Given his many shortcomings, people ask, why did the Labour party not force him out? This theme has drawn criticism back onto David Miliband. Not challenging Brown confirmed that Labour would lose the election and Andrew Rawnsley was especially damning in his condemnation of the timidity of Labour’s MPs. However, it is hard not to see the logic in the decision not to act. Brown would not have resigned willingly and a leadership campaign immediately before a general election would have been bloody.

Brown’s comprehensive defeat in the general election allowed a clearer break and prevented a vicious internal fight. I have one caveat on this element. Darling was almost pushed out of No. 11 in 2009 but then allowed to stay after James Purnell’s resignation. It seems that Brown needed Darling more than Darling needed Brown. Darling could have used the strength of his position to force concessions or greater independence. I suppose he lacked the ruthlessness to do so, presumably not a character trait compatible with repeatedly winning awards for ‘most boring politician’.

The book of course contains the inevitable barrage against bankers. While Darling notes certain ones helped him throughout his time in No. 11, such as John Varley of Barclays, there is unbridled contempt for the worst culprits such as Fred Goodwin. Darling’s account of the call from the Chairman of RBS stating that the bank could continue to operate for perhaps four hours is a terrible reminder of how close capitalism came to destroying itself. Indeed, Darling’s story is often quite enjoyable until you remember the dreadful price that has had to be paid for the incompetence and greed of those at the top of RBS, Northern Rock and HBOS.

Further to the problems Darling experienced with these bankers, there is a discussion of how Mervyn King pushed the limits of his political neutrality. While New Labour had made him independent to set monetary policy, his comments on fiscal policy went beyond what was acceptable. The revelation that Brown and Darling considered not renewing his contract for a second term demonstrated the extent of the problems.

Though Brown comes under sustained criticism from Darling, politicians from rival parties are also targets of Darling’s scorn. Clegg, Cable and Osborne are hammered for their hypocrisy. Clegg and Cable’s volte face over the fundamental approach on how to deal with the deficit (post coalition deal) and Osborne’s backing of Labour’s economic spending plans for the 2005–2008 years are highlights.

Indeed, it is important to remember that in 2006 George Osborne described Ireland as representing ‘a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking’. This demonstrates that he was as ignorant of the coming problems as the rest of us, a quote he’d certainly prefer forgotten. It is a worthwhile if often depressing read which book illustrates how New Labour, despite infighting and the enormous scale of the challenges brought the UK economy back from the brink of economic disaster. Let’s hope now that Osborne does not take us there again.

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