Review: Beyond the Crash: Overcoming the first crisis of Globalisation by Gordon Brown
Simon & Schuster, €23.99, Hardback
Published 15/01/2011 | 05:00
By his own account, former British prime minister Gordon Brown is just about the only world leader to correctly identify the nature of the banking crisis, and the proper response to it.
A sweeping claim indeed, although the recorded facts do bear him out to some degree. As in Ireland, when the crisis struck, banks in Britain told their government that their problem was access to ready cash (liquidity), rather than insupportable losses.
Whether deliberate or not, this claim was wrong. The British day of reckoning came a few weeks after Ireland's, on October 8, 2008. Yet Brown recalls that just the day before, the head of one of the UK's biggest banks told him the problem was cash flow, and all he needed was overnight finance.
Brown had already decided the bankers were disingenuous or deluded. He insisted they take £50bn (€60bn) in fresh capital, £250bn (€301bn) in credit guarantees and £200bn (€241bn) of extra liquidity -- loans from the Bank of England.
Two of the biggest banks ended up in majority state ownership and, in a significant difference from Ireland, all the top brass had to resign.
What about Ireland? Just those few weeks earlier, Brown's finance minister Alastair Darling had excoriated Brian Lenihan in a furious telephone call after the decision to give a blanket guarantee to the Irish banks.
One therefore came with anticipation to the section covering the weekend of the Irish guarantee, but the anticipation was misplaced. The Irish guarantee receives just one paragraph, and even that is not quite accurate.
Brown says Ireland guaranteed all deposits. In fact, it guaranteed, not just deposits, but also all borrowings by the Irish banks. Perhaps even now, the former British prime minister has not quite grasped the breathtakingly risky scale of the Irish approach.
Of course, Ireland is small in the great scheme of things, although Brown gives a cogent analysis of the way in which the entire European banking system is dangerously interwoven. But the treatment of the Irish actions is part of a wider flaw in the book. It is a world where no one seriously disagrees with anyone, and they all come around to seeing the wisdom of Brown's views in the end.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of other books about Brown's chancellorship and premiership, especially those of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, will have a very different picture of how he operated -- or failed to operate -- and of the bruisers and bullies who, they say, surrounded him.
This bland approach leaves some glaring questions unanswered. Brown recalls that Royal Bank of Scotland (parent of Ulster Bank) doubled its borrowings in just one year. HBOS (parent of the departed Halifax Ireland) was warned by its own head of risk management that it would collapse if it did not change "its sales-obsessed culture."
Yet there is no mention of what the prime minister and former finance minister -- Gordon Brown -- was doing about all of this.
Making it worse would be the honest answer. While British banks were indulging in their private borrowing spree, Brown was presiding over significant public sector borrowing. At least Brian Cowen ran surpluses; albeit, as we now know, not nearly big enough ones.
Unwise policies as finance minister were followed by a disastrous premiership -- and this from a man who had spent much of his adult life scheming and dreaming about being prime minister.
One gets a sense that Brown's undoubted successes in dealing with the UK banking collapse, and even more in organising the G20 international response, are being paraded as justification for what otherwise seems a largely unsuccessful career.
That should not deter the reader too much from what is a very clear analysis of the nature of the banking crisis and the wider global imbalances between savers and borrowers.
Even more useful to Irish ones, though, is his description of the risks of euro membership which led him to oppose UK membership -- and threaten resignation if Blair went ahead.
This was done on the basis of perhaps the most comprehensive study of euro membership undertaken by any country.
While the arguments for Irish membership are different than for Britain, the risks identified by the treasury are essentially the same.
Yet, in 11 years of euro membership, I cannot recall an Irish politician or civil servant ever mentioning this treasure trove of free data and analysis.
Says it all, really.
Brendan Keenan is Group Business Editor of Independent Newspapers