by Anthony Painter
Like the Kennedy assassination, new camera angles on the decline and fall of Labour in office will be discovered for many years to come. What’s more, each new piece of undisclosed footage will end with the same dreadful, bloody result. So why do we do it to ourselves? We just can’t help it.
The latest offering from a senior Labour figure, the ‘never knowingly over-optimistic’, Alistair Darling’s Back from the
brink has the same literary merit as the others in the genre: structure and style are put in the service of proving a point. But like the chick lit, executive biography or self-help genres (the political memoir may be a subset of this latter category- for the author) it is not full-throttle, florid prose that is the attraction. The author gets to have their say, settle a few scores and we get to vicariously sit in the room while momentous decisions are made.
Perhaps only Chris Mullin’s diaries would be worth recommending to a non-Westminster obsessed friend amongst the New Labour memoirs. For the rest, twenty minutes in the company of exclusive in the Sunday Times would be enough. None of this is particular to Darling; it should be clear by now that this is not my favourite genre. If it’s your taste then Back from the Brink is no better or worse than most of the others.
The Alistair Darling who emerges from these pages is decent, honourable, intelligent, courageous, and resolute. He’s rather like Alistair Darling in fact: very likeable and engaging. When events have subsequently proved him right, he makes his point and then moves on. There is no great crescendo of self-justification. But there’s no real mea culpa either. We simply see things- most of which we knew already- from his perspective. Kennedy gets shot and dies.
Beyond the lucky and the unlucky, there are two main types of Chancellor: wave-makers and surfers. The first aim to set the political and economic course. They establish new institutions, incorporate new thinking, and see themselves as the chief executive of national corporation. The surfers on the other hand try to stay on their feet. Sometimes the waves they have to contend with are large, sometimes small. Whatever they do they concentrate on not falling over. They are chief operating officers. The likes of Brown, Lawson, and Howe are to be found in the first category. Major, Lawson, Healey, and Darling are in the latter category (Clarke sits somewhere between the two.)
Interestingly, Osborne is in the same category as Brown. He is seeking to change the economic course in a way that is politically advantageous. The prime ministerial trick is knowing when you need a wave-maker and when you need a surfer. Brown wanted the former- his ally Ed Balls- but was forced into appointing Darling. What he needed was the latter.
He reluctantly allowed him ‘just a year’ at the beginning of his premiership and was then, through political weakness, forced into letting him stay on two years down the line. Yet, it was a surfer- someone agile enough to adapt to the prevailing conditions- that he needed. Cameron has got the wave-maker he wants. All the signs are as the economy flatlines that he actually needs a surfer. And as Darling makes clear without ever directly stating it, a fairly dishonest one at that.
Darling was the right man at the right time. He looked at the evidence, weighed it up, formed a judgement and acted. At least, he did when he was given the freedom to do so. It wasn’t enough to save the Government. Economically divided and exhausted it fell. But there were key moments leading up to that: the election that never was in 2007; the banks’ collapse in 2008; the post 2009 elections leadership crisis; and the fiscal policy from the pre-budget report 2009 on. For Darling, it got one right, two wrong and one- the leadership question- we’ll never know. That’s about right.
His economic plan- rejected by Gordon Brown- was to gradually raise VAT to 20%, cut income and corporation taxes in the short term, and be more specific about where the cuts would fall. He utterly rejected the ‘investment v cuts’ frame as completely not credible. Would this have been a game-changer when it came to the election? Unlikely.
My sense though is that it would have- if the politics of committing to increase VAT didn’t lead to an implosion in the party- limited the downside risk to Labour’s economic reputation. It may have been in a stronger position in the post-election environment. Labour’s economic reputation is the single biggest issue limiting its chances at the next election. It would have been preferable to start from a higher base. Labour is still stuck in a half-hearted ‘investment v cuts’ frame.
Most of the main protagonists of Bank from the brink have left the stage. Yet the dilemmas haven’t. For Labour, that means it is looking at perceptions of its economic credibility remaining in the doldrums. For the Conservatives, it means trying to navigate an economic recovery with the wrong type of Chancellor in office- an inflexible one who insists on staying the course despite being lost in the storm.
For both, an Alistair Darling would be a wise voice of reason. It is not by chance the economy has slowly run out of steam since he left office. It is connected. And these memoirs detail the judgements taken that prevented the British economy plunging into the abyss and began its economic recovery. We are all missing a Darling-esque steady hand on the tiller. Back from the brink reminds us why.
Anthony Painter is an author and critic.