Sunday review: Back from the brink, by Alistair Darling

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

"A wise voice of reason"

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.

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4 Responses to “Sunday review: Back from the brink, by Alistair Darling”

  1. swatantra says:

    Polly Toynbee give the Labour Govt 6/10 in ‘The Verdict’.
    The one thing Brown and darling will be remebered for is that the saved the World from the brink of disaster,and the pity is they get precious little thanks for that.
    Te truth is that Brown was not really a people person. Darling was competant to some degree but wooden, rather like a Thunderbirds puppet, and Brown was pulling the strings.

  2. AnneJGP says:

    Interesting review, Anthony. This bit mystifies me: All the signs are as the economy flatlines that [Cameron] actually needs a surfer. And as Darling makes clear without ever directly stating it, a fairly dishonest one at that.

    Please could you clarify for me why the country would benefit from having a “fairly dishonest” Chancellor of the Exchequer, of whatever type? I’m all in favour of honesty, personally, as I consider probity in public life a good thing.

  3. donpaskini says:

    Hi Anthony,

    Good review as ever.

    Don’t agree that the Darling Plan would have limited the damage to Labour’s economic credibility, though. The damage was done in the first few months of the Coalition government – during the time when we were choosing a new leader.

    Even if there hadn’t been an implosion within the party as you note, spelling out our cuts would have been pure political poison and handed the Tories an overall majority. They could choose which of our cuts to stick with and which to attack us over. This would have set up the enticing prospect of an election campaign where we set out how we would cut the NHS whereas the Tories wouldn’t, while those of our supporters who didn’t see why they should suffer from a crisis caused by bankers got hoovered up by Nick Clegg and Vince Cable.

    Then the leadership election would have been about “do you stick to the Darling Plan which lost us the election or oppose the evil Tory cuts”, and the anti-cuts candidate would probably have won as everyone in the Labour Party from Luke Akehurst leftwards plus nearly all the trade unionists agrees with Brown and not with Darling.

  4. AnneJGp- I meant would benefit from a Chancellor who adapted to the prevailing economic conditions as opposed to just ploughing on regardless.

    Dan- I guess we’ll never know. And yes, there is every possibility that the party would have ended up in the same place it is now. Which is worrying and suggests that we may not have been able to convince about its economic/fiscal credibility due to divisions. Which implies that we are not capable of being in Government during a period of prolonged fiscal retrenchment….worrying.

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