EBS Event: Alistair Darling

20 09 2011

EBS Event: Alistair DarlingAlistair 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.”

Back from the Bring by Alistair DarlingDarling 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.”

Author Event: Michael Scheuer

27 08 2011

Michael Scheuer“With the death of Bin Laden, the West scored a tremendous tactical victory,” announced ex-CIA man, Michael Scheuer, as he began his reflective speech on Al Qaeda and the war on terror.

Already billed in the book festival programme as “controversy guaranteed,” that’s exactly what we got when he was unable to continue after a loud male voice boomed from stage left: “You’re talking absolute shite pal!”

Scheuer turned to face his accuser, the lights full in his face and a silence befalling the audience inside the tent. “I think you’re an arse,” continued the man. “You’re talking a pile of crap.”

“I think there’s a time for questions at the end,” replied Scheuer, but the man wouldn’t be appeased.

Cue an intervention from Ruth Wishart, who approached the man and explained quietly that this event was now over for him.

“I’ve paid my money and I can tell him what I like,” the man bellowed.

“You can tell him from outside,” said Wishart. “You’re leaving.”

And with that, Security arrived and hauled the man out as he left a stream of abuse directed towards Wishart, his political views about the CIA now forgotten.

Re-taking her seat, and with an air of tension still floating in the room, Wishart turned to Scheuer and said: “See what happens when you bring your boyfriend in with you?”

And so Scheuer, the man who led the CIA team tasked with locating Bin Laden between 1996 an 1999, and worked as special adviser to its chief from 2001 to 2004, restarted his speech from where he left off.

“We’re at war because of the choices made by Western governments,” he explained. “And we are faced with a problem largely of our own making. Until we realise our actions have consequences, we will lose all over.”

A grim perspective and it only got worse: “In terms of Al Qaeda, it’s impossible for them to grasp how much progress they’ve made since 9/11 because America is far from being able to develop a proper foreign policy on its own.”

On the Arab Spring, he said :“Despite what many writers have commented, the so called Arab Spring hasn’t made Al Qaeda irrelevant. It has delighted them and has been an intelligence disaster for us.”

Scheuer was asked whether he wished his unit had taken Bin Laden when they had the chance prior to 9/11. “It was always the intention to take Bin Laden alive at first but we could have killed him a dozen times over. Politically, though, it just wasn’t on the cards.”

The issue of America’s continued involvement in the Middle East came with an element of 20/20 hindsight. “We should let the Arabs rule themselves—or kill each other if they want to—but no good will come from the U.S.A. getting involved with their idea of what a democracy is. I think the idea that a U.S. Marine should have to die so that Mrs Mohammed can have a vote is a tragedy of epic proportions.”

And on the current political landscape in Washington, Scheuer commented: “We live in hope that one day we will stop electing politicians and start electing statesmen.”

Author Event: Simon Hoggart

18 08 2011

Simon Hoggart

I’d selected Hoggart as an event based purely on his Guardian column. He often makes me laugh and nod at his astute observations, but occasionally annoys me with some of the opinions he holds. So I wanted to hear him speak to see if I was maybe picking him up wrong on things—I wanted to see if I liked him or not.

He’s older than I realised, certainly he’s older than the photoshoppers at the Guardian have made him look in his column avatar, but he does have a killer sense of humour. It’s in the good old-fashioned British/Radio 4 vein, in fact, he reminded me of a more political Terry Wogan in some of his tales.

And that’s pretty much what he came to do. He’s written a book that contains anecdotes and stories about his time as a journalist, and he spent the whole hour hand picking stories about politicians we would rarely get to hear about. He’s met every Prime Minister since Harold MacMillan, so he had plenty to tell us from his book, A Long Lunch.

For example, before David Cameron became Prime Minister, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell always drew him with a condom over his head. When asked by the then candidate to take over from Gordon Brown, Bell said it was because of “your smooth skin, your texture—it just didn’t work with cling film somehow.”

The Guardian told Bell to stop drawing the condom, but many months later when the two met again after the re-appearance of the condom on the now PM’s head, Cameron was more forced with his demand as to why it had returned. “Because there were so many complaints from readers that it had been removed,” said Bell. Cameron turned away muttering: “You can push the condom too far, you know.”

If you’re into the idiosyncratic humour of Westminster, this book by Hoggart will very much be for you.