Alistair Darling was in town last night to promote his new book, Back From the Brink, “a first-hand account of the (economic) crisis of 2007, and a fascinating view of life inside the Downing Street bubble and of Gordon Brown’s premiership”.
Darling, current MP for Edinburgh South West, was at the centre of the crash as then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Last night he was a guest of the Edinburgh Bookshop in an event held in Christ Church, Morningside, where he was grilled by ex-Newsnight and BBC Radio 4 World at One producer, Eleanor Updale.
Despite early sound problems with the Church’s flagging p.a. system, the event turned into a fascinating session as Darling recounted the crux matter of his book, managing the economic crash of 2007.
Eleanor Updale, who ended up doing the interview while standing alongside Darling, looked somewhat uncomfortable but the shift seemed to give Darling a comfortable platform from which to shine. “I’m very reluctant to get in pool-pit, though,” he joked.
Suave, tanned, and with a shiny head of soft silver hair, Darling spoke honestly and plainly about his time in the British Cabinet. Still clearly passionate about politics, and seemingly with much to offer the country, he came across very likeable and at times quite camp in his delivery of his answers to Updale’s forthright yet subtle questioning.
“I took out a bank account with the RBS 40 years ago and watched as it grew to be one of the world’s biggest banks,” he began. “So to be told it was within hours from closing, and that by mid-afternoon the ATMs would be switched off and the economy literally shut down, wasn’t really the best phone call I ever took at 5am.”
“The chain effect from Northern Rock’s exposure to the American banking system was inevitable given the intertwined and complicated worldwide banking system,” explained Darling. “Unfortunately more people say they saw it coming these days then they did at the time,” he said. “But the truth was nobody saw it coming. We got used to living in a culture that led to it.”
The crash led to the biggest government bail out in a century, the controversy being that tax payers’ money was used to achieve it. Darling insists the country will get its money back, but while lightly joking that “I’d written some largish cheques in my time…” admitted it was no laughing matter when faced with the dilemma of public revulsion, against the prospect of watching the country grind to a halt.
“The way to deal with a problem like that is not to sit and hope something turns up, you have to act. I believe the decision we took was the right one.”
On the problems still continuing today, which Darling predicts may still last another few years, he also admitted: “A year ago I would have said it to be unlikely that Greece would default, but now it’s a question of how badly it will be when it does.”
Darling opened up to his failings with equal humility as his highlights, lacking in any form of visible arrogance rarely seen in politicians these days. Perhaps now he has been knocked off the top, we as an audience were prepared to be less critical of him than if her were the incumbent Chancellor.
With a strong sense of underlying loyalty, despite why the newspapers may have reflected (or perhaps through vivid memories of the experience), Darling refused to rip into ex-prime minister Gordon Brown as many would have hoped. Among his many plaudits for the man: “The G20 would never have happened if it weren’t for him.”
Pragmatic about Labour’s election defeat, he said: “the system isn’t broken because we lost; we lost because we lost. I didn’t like the result, obviously, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t working. The Conservatives didn’t win it either, which is why they had to form a coalition but that still doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been right to hold on. Not all my colleagues agreed with my assessment, though.”
On his future career Darling was more vague. As MP for Edinburgh South West, he hinted that he hopes to still be in a job after the Electoral Commission changes the constituency boundaries in which Edinburgh will lose one seat. But he finished an entertaining by saying of his career: “I’ll see what happens. There’s something to be said for not making a decision unless you have to.”