Back from the Brink by Alistair Darling

Labours of problem solving

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Alistair Darling was a problem solver. He was one of only three ministers in the Cabinet for the entire 13 years that Labour was in power. His career consisted of being sent to run a department which had been in the news for all the wrong reasons, such as Transport, and get it out of the headlines. He was a competent administrator who took a certain pride in the accusation that his career was boring.

Then, late in 2007, it suddenly turned interesting when queues of anxious savers crowded outside every branch of Northern Rock wanting to get their savings out while there was still money in the till. It was the first run on a British bank since the 19th century, and as the recently-appointed Chancellor, Darling had to find a solution. It was the start of three years a lot more interesting than he intended, which he covers in this memoir.

This is not a profound book. It is the story of how first this problem, then that one, dropped into the Chancellor's in-tray, and how he dealt with them all. He does not offer grand conclusions about what his experiences say about capitalism in the 21st century or about politics in a modern, media-driven democracy.

There are some choice anecdotes, not all of which appeared in the published extracts. He describes how as he sat down after delivering his first Mansion House speech, and the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, was on his feet, the Chancellor was "transfixed" by the sight of a man crawling in his direction, weaving around diners' legs until he reached Darling's press secretary, Catherine Macleod, and tugged her skirt to gain her attention. It was a Daily Telegraph reporter seeking confirmation of a rumour that the Banks' deputy governor, Sir John Gieve, was retiring.

There are also, inevitably, stories of his prickly relationship with Gordon Brown and certain advisers, including Ed Balls. They generally do not show the former Prime Minister in a good light, though the much-quoted description of Brown as "volcanic" does not appear in the text. There is however a funny anecdote about Darling's and Brown's poor relationship with Mervyn King, as they quarrelled over how to handle the banking crisis. The Chancellor was watching on television as the Governor gave evidence to the Commons Treasury committee. A furious Brown came on the phone wanting Darling to go across to the Commons, burst into the televised session and put a stop to it. "It was tempting, but not practical," the ex-Chancellor dryly remarks.

As expected, he tells the story from his own side, defending his own reputation – not so much against what the Conservatives or anyone from the right has said, but more against the version of those years as told by Gordon Brown's circle. My colleague Steve Richards has suggested that Darling was more in the wrong, and Brown right, more often than these pages suggest. But the reader will be minded to accept Darling's version because he is a decent man who does not exaggerate and, apart from a few sharp observations, is not out to settle scores.

The frustrating moments are when bigger questions are glimpsed, but not answered. There are, for example, two striking insights into how much the leading Labour politicians were the slaves of what happened in the 1980s when they lost one election after another. The more obvious is how Brown and Darling agonised before finally, reluctantly deciding that the government would have to take over Northern Rock, which was on the point of collapse. This was because nationalisation had featured in Labour's election losing manifestos before being abandoned, around 1990.

He also records that the Brown government, like its predecessor, was run so much by cabals and so little by collective Cabinet responsibility that often he had the sensation that thinking about the big questions was like conversing with people who were not in the room. He devotes just one sentence to explaining why.

In 1989, a committee set up by Labour in opposition had come to conclusions which affected the tax plans that the party put before the voters in the 1992 general election, which it lost. Moral: decisions made by committees can turn out wrong. So can decisions made by little groups assembled on sofas. The word "Iraq" springs to mind. It is a shame Darling did not think harder before committing himself to print; there is a market to be served that demands revelations from ex-ministers, and soon. But it is not a bad read for all that.

Alistair Darling will be speaking with Simon Kelner at the 'Independent' Woodstock Literary Festival on Friday 16 September; woodstockliteraryfestival.com

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