It’s debatable whether politicians of the Left or the Right are better at handling the public finances. But we do seem to learn more about economics under a Labour government. Alistair Darling’s memoir chronicles his turbulent years at the Treasury as he watched the world slithering into a financial volcano. Though the material is extremely dramatic, Darling’s sober, measured prose doesn’t quite suit the story’s explosive theatricality.
He was haunted by the Northern Rock crisis of 2007 and the global impact of TV images showing panicking investors queuing up to withdraw all their cash. That, he determined, must never happen again. More than once, as the crisis swept the world, he had to stage manage a calm exit from a summit in order to dash home and sort out a new phase in the calamity. With hindsight we should be thankful that this competent, humane and unflappable character was in the cockpit as the economy hit the roughest weather since the Great Depression. He brought the plane down in open water rather than into a mountainside. And he avoided a second run on a bank.
Like any good politician he merrily clobbers his current opponents. When quantitative easing was first mooted, he reminds us, Vince Cable damned it as ‘the road to Harare’. And George Osborne declared that ‘printing money is the last resort of desperate governments’ (which isn’t quite same as ruling it out, of course). Both changed their minds in office.
With his own colleagues, Darling is more cautious. He refuses to knife any Labour member (notably Ed Balls) whose career is still active. Of Gordon Brown and his uncontrollable rages he records this soon-to-be-legendary observation from Tony Blair. ‘It’s like facing the dentist’s drill without anaesthetic. It goes on and on.’