Monday 23 April 2018

Darling's days in the grim world of finance

Back from the Brink -- 1,000 Days at Number 11

Thomas Molloy

Alistair Darling

ALISTAIR Darling has written one of the best accounts of the financial crisis yet to be published.

As an added bonus, the former British Chancellor of the Exchequer has a lot to say about Ireland in his new book 'Back from the Brink -- 1,000 Days at Number 11'; indeed the first page mentions Ireland's problems and they reappear throughout the volume.

We tend to overrate our own importance in this country in many fields but the book makes it clear that many of us may be guilty of understating our country's importance to the UK and the broader financial system.

He makes no bones about the fact that he was opposed to the bank guarantee scheme -- essentially confirming what many Irish civil servants have reported since then, that the British and French exploded when they heard how Brian Lenihan had ignored all agreements about concerted action in a solo run that also ended up being a fruitless attempt to save Irish banks.

Darling's book is also valuable as a reminder of how difficult the job of finance minister is these days. He often presents himself as confused, dazed and out of his depth.

The demands of his prime minister, the manic Gordon Brown, pull him one way, while the advice from other egos such as Bank of England governor Mervyn King pull him in other directions.

His own doubts and imperfect knowledge of fast-moving events don't help. On finishing the book, most readers will be left wondering why anybody would want to hold such a position and whether it is still possible for a finance minister to have much influence on events when there are so many complex inputs and so many ministers must agree to any action before it happens.

These reflections are obviously shaped by the unfolding crisis in the eurozone, which had not reached full steam by the time Darling left Downing Street, but the difficulty and sheer determination needed in getting EU ministers to agree on anything is thrown into sharp relief by these memoirs.

It is always useful to be reminded that our masters are human with all the foibles that follow. 'Back from the Brink' inevitably makes one more sympathetic to Michael Noonan and his counterparts as they shuttle across Europe for endless boring but important talks, but the book also fuels concern about system itself.

Is anybody in control? Do we have a political class with any real knowledge of finance? Darling certainly displays almost no understanding. Can we change things? Darling offers little reason to hope that we can.

In the style of Samuel Pepys or Mr Pooter, Darling gives us an insight into the life of a modern finance minister. It isn't a pretty picture but readers will learn quite a lot.

The book is available from with free P&P or phone 01 405 9011

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