Back From The Brink: 1,000 Days at Number 11.

Author:Saunders, Robert
Position:Book review

Alistair Darling is the great survivor of British politics. From 1988 to 2010, he spent twenty-two years on the front bench, and he was one of just three men to serve in Cabinet through the entire New Labour era. It was an unlikely triumph for a man so deficient in animal magnetism. Twice voted 'Most Boring Politician of the Year', he was known chiefly before 2007, if not for his curious eyebrows, then for his soporific effect on troubled departments. Possessed of an invaluable capacity to drop quietly out of the headlines, he passed effortlessly and almost unnoticed through a series of graveyard portfolios. 'The epithet "a safe pair of hands"', he notes wryly, 'will no doubt feature in my obituary' (p. 4). Yet scarcely had he become Chancellor, in 2007, when a volcano went off under the global financial system. By the time he left office, three years later, the world economy had changed forever; and Darling had emerged as one of the central players in Labour politics.

The scale of the crash, even at this stage, is hard to comprehend. When Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) collapsed, in 2008, its potential liabilities were estimated at [pounds sterling]1.9 trillion; larger than the entire GDP of the United Kingdom. HBOS, the country's biggest mortgage lender, lost a third of its value in one day; while RBS lost 40 per cent of its share price in the time it took the chancellor to fly to Luxemburg. The crisis exposed for the first time the full scale of globalisation, at a time when Post Office savings were held by the Bank of Ireland; the holdings of charities and local councils were wrapped up in an Icelandic financial bubble; and Lehmans was thought to have moved $6 billion out of London just before it ceased trading. The stakes of failure could hardly have been higher: 'cash machines would be switched off, cheques would not be honoured, people would not be paid'. 'If we got this wrong, the livelihoods of millions of people would be at stake' (pp. 154, 157).

Possessed of a mordant wit and a useful line in gallows humour, Darling proves an entertaining writer with an eye for the absurd. There was no shortage of material. In a deranged attempt at secrecy, studies of struggling banks were disguised as 'animal and plant reports'. 'My private secretary would give me a note telling me how Jupiter was failing, or that Badger was in a bad way'. When the spokesman for Northern Rock left the meeting, the minutes dutifully recorded that 'Elvis left the...

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