What Alistair Darling and I have in common

8 September 2011

2:50 PM

8 September 2011

2:50 PM

The coverage of Alistair Darling’s memoirs at the weekend was fascinating, not least for
the almost universal respect he was shown. Some senior Labour figures tried the old "ancient history" line. But this was ridiculous given the fact that the events described are relatively
recent and that they continue to have a profound effect on he Labour Party.

Darling was one of the few key players during the banking crisis to have kept a cool head. The extracts from his memoirs demonstrate just how difficult that must have been considering the utter
chaos around him. The process of publishing these memoirs must have been difficult as he is someone who, by his cautious lawyerly nature, prefers to keep his counsel. But, of all the memoirs to
have come out of the New Labour era this is possibly the most important.


Darling’s account of the summer of 2008 and his fateful Guardian interview with Decca Aitkenhead is particularly intriguing. He is still clearly bruised by the reaction to his comments that Britain
was suffering "arguably the worst downturn there has been in 60 years". As he points out, he had made similar comments in a Times article and in an interview with me in the New Statesman in June of that year:

"If you ask fundamentally what’s changed… self-evidently it’s the credit crunch… The IMF has said that it is the biggest shock to the world’s economic systems since the 1930s… If
you look at the overarching event of the past 12 months, it is a slowdown in the economy, and everything that comes with it, and that hasn’t just affected the economic matters – it’s had a
huge bearing on politics, too. It’s the old adage "it’s the economy, stupid", and the economy drives politics."

 Why Gordon Brown’s cabal of briefers chose the August show of frankness to strike is still unclear. Perhaps it was just that they had finally got their troops lined up at this
point, though it is telling that they still failed to remove the Chancellor and replace him with their man. Where Darling is very astute is on recognising that Brown operated with a "who will
rid me of this turbulent priest" mentality. This allowed others to act on his behalf, while believing they were doing his master’s bidding.

I had my own rather less high-profile experience of this when Geoffrey Robinson, a close ally of Brown’s and then owner of the New Statesman mobilised to have me removed as Political Editor of the
magazine. Although nothing was ever said, he planned to appoint Patrick Hennessy, Politcal Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, as editor. It was later reported to me that Hennessy was told his first
job would be to fire me. To his credit, this most Brownite of hacks was horrified by the idea, I was later told.

It is a sign of how ineffectual the Brown’s people had become at this point that they failed to get their man into the chair at the New Statesman, let alone Number 11.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Good blog.

  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice blog.

  • Nicholas

    “It is, to say the least, self-defeating to attack leftwingers as intolerant and incapable of honest debate while also asserting that leftwing thought can proceed only through concealment and bullying.”

    Really? How so? The two are hand and glove. Currently there is a growing leftist presumption that a rightist viewpoint is not just in disagreement but is, or should be, unacceptable. Anyone who sees this “debate” as six to one and half a dozen to the other is underestimating the shift in the political climate of Britain over the last fourteen years. We have become a soft socialist state with a hard, emergent authoritarian centre cloaked in mawkish, parochial platitudes predicated on a presumptive but untested assumption of public opinion. To an old-fashioned kind of Englishmen it is utterly alien and horrible. Don’t blame me – I was born here too and still live here – and don’t expect me to like it. And when I get angry about it please put in play that fabled “equality and fairness”, accept that I don’t share your views and refrain from abusing me as a “racist”, “fascist”, “dinosaur” or whichever other arrogant pejorative your own prejudices seize on. I’m old but I consider myself insurgent and rebel in this usurped and much muddled land.

  • Kram Ekosum

    Simon Stephenson(in response to Martin S) thank you for this tour de force…! The Right have been just as negative and blinkard about alternative views over recent years but ‘they’ appear to be starting to repudiate their predecessors and grow up. It all comes back to Disraeli’s dictum; something long the lines: ‘A man who isn’t a liberal when he’s young has no heart. A man who isn’t a conservative when he’s old has no head.’ For Martin S – Surely the slur of being “Evil” is much more sorely felt than being a liar or even an idiot…?

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Martin S : 3.52pm

    What a strange first paragraph! My argument is that the thinking Right have enough confidence in the rational, perhaps even the scientific, strength of their arguments to believe that they are right, and to submit these arguments to contest without the fear that they will be demolished by the superior strength of the other side. The thinking Left, on the other hand, is far less convinced that its arguments can survive such an examination – and who would blame it, when just about every example of leftist government has ended up with outcomes way, way short of what its promoters promised. Leftism seems to be about “reality’s not good enough, we’re better off living in a state of over-optimism, no matter that after the initial stages this is also going to be a state of perpetual disappointment”. Leftism seems permanently to be trying to create a state of bliss for a human population that isn’t human, and fails to recognise that in doing this it disqualifies us from living in a world of “pretty good, but not quite perfect” – or anywhere near it. Is it really any wonder that the thinking Right believe that in discussions of practical policy they have nothing to fear from the arguments of the thinking Left? Or that in such an environment the thinking Left realise that the only way they’ll not be defeated is to reclassify their ideological positions from opinions to certainties – and so, no matter what the arguments, they don’t have to give way?

    As far as the Telegraph is concerned, you’ve obviously never examined its content. There’s a mass of material that is sceptical or unsupportive of Tory opinion. Of course there’s a lot of pro-Tory stuff as well, but maybe the editorial policy is that opinions built through bias and propaganda are far less secure than those built through consideration of alternative viewpoints.

    Shrill posting in comment columns is the bane of every newspaper. The banner-bearers and slogan-chanters of old have been given a new medium to display their glorious combination of arrogance, stupidity and lack of consideration for others. But note that I’ve restricted my comments to the thinking Right and Left, which excludes the shrillies from both sides.

    Your antepenultimate paragraph I agree with entirely, but you are wrong to assert that having confidence is a denial of humility and respect. We outside the thinking Left believe we have the stronger practical policies. We acknowledge we aim at a lower bar than the Left, but we believe that the Left’s bar is only attainable in cloud-cuckoo-land, and that trying to attain it in the real world is the wrong policy, because it necessarily involves relinquishing many of the plusses to society that can only come from less idealistic compromises. We leave the door open to the Left to convince us that their policies are practicably superior to ours, because we want the best paractical policy to win the argument. Why can’t the Left either do the same, or else acknowledge that it is not seeking to win the practical argument, but to propose that there’s a higher purpose to humanity than making practicably optimal decisions?

    “That’s how we end up with Tories are Evil/Socialists are Liars and Idiots.”

    No. How we end up with this is that the protagonists are playing two different games. To the Left, Tories are “evil” because they don’t accept the Left’s need for a perfect sense of social order, and to the Right, Socialists are “liars and idiots” because they refuse to accept that most people don’t share their idea of social order, and also because they pass off what they are working towards as something else.

  • Martin S

    @Simon Stephenson and @Nicholas

    It is, to say the least, self-defeating to attack leftwingers as intolerant and incapable of honest debate while also asserting that leftwing thought can proceed only through concealment and bullying.

    And I’m afraid I don’t see the Telegraph as a great example of the variety and openness that you say characterises the relaxed self-confidence of the right. I see the same rigidity and dogma that characterises the Guardian. Both papers operate by telling their readers what they want to hear.

    Compare the below-the-line comments at the Guardian and the Telegraph and tell me that one set of posters is any less shrill, hysterical, dogmatic and crazy than the other. It’s exactly the same phenomenon. And there’s plenty of EUSSR/”Commie Ron” stuff around the Spectator, too.

    Being tolerant and open to debate is about being able to accept that you might be wrong. It’s also about accepting that people who have different opinions don’t necessarily have bad characters. Humility and respect.

    In other words, the opposite of being “sufficiently convinced of the strength of your hypotheses”. And of believing that your opponents “perpetually need to conceal the improbability of some of their hypotheses”.

    That’s how we end up with Tories are Evil/Socialists are Liars and Idiots.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Nicholas ; 9.03am

    “If I ever heard [Livingstone] say “I could be wrong about that” or “I was mistaken” or even “I can appreciate (insert name of Tory)’s argument, but . . . ” I might ease off on the hatred pedal, but no promises, eh?”

    I think this puts it in a nutshell. What determines the temperature in political contest is not the content of the opinions, but the way in which these are held, and the manner in which they are asserted. If someone says to me that my views must be wrong because his views differ, and he is certain that he is right, then I’m afraid that I take this to be disrespectful to me as a human being. No one can be certain about these things, and no one has a right to accuse me of being “wrong” by virtue only of holding an opinion which is different from his.

    The descent into rule by dogma is all around us, with the modern Left at the forefront. And the more we discard reason and intellect as the means by which power is transmitted, the closer we’ll get to mob rule.

  • Nicholas

    I think not hating Livingstone might only be possible if one shares his rather odd viewpoint absolutely. Tricky, I know, but the Left seem to have plenty of such fervent adherents and that viewpoint is now more or less a coded list of tick boxes beyond reason that they all sign up to. At a very crude and personal level (that I’m not proud of) I find it sufficient to hate Livingstone for his whining, wheedling voice, smug expression of certitude and media whore exposure. It’s not yet wellington boot at the TV screen hatred but more just shouted profanity at the TV screen hatred. But beneath that visceral, instinctive hatred lies a deep suspicion that Livingstone, to paraphrase, is “eager to swap the hazards of American freedom for the grey certitudes of Soviet life”.

    If I ever heard him say “I could be wrong about that” or “I was mistaken” or even “I can appreciate (insert name of Tory)’s argument, but . . . ” I might ease off on the hatred pedal, but no promises, eh?

    But then I’m not even sure I’m allowed to hate anyone or anything in New Labour’s Bright New (Labour) World currently being conserved so well by the Tweedle-Twee and Tweedle-Dumb coalition. Isn’t it a crime yet? Maybe that po-faced and humourless representative of the Aspirant British Soviet Socialist State Erica Blair could advise?

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Martin S : 7.56pm

    Where’s the evidence that Martin Bright “hates” Ken Livingstone? Is it not possible for him to disagree with some of Livingstone’s views/policies/tactics but to have no particular feelings about him as a person?

    Maybe he’s not “surprised” that criticism of Livingstone was so badly received by some of the Left. Might it not be that his criticism is a general complaint about the bully-boy, discussion stopping tactics of some of the Left-in-power? Despite contemporary appearances to the contrary, not everyone is entirely self-focused you know.

    I’m not sure how familiar you are with pro-Conservative publications, but there’s oceans of evidence of contrarians being given space to present their views. Look at the Telegraph, for example, and how together with a lot of pro-Tory opinion there’s at least as much that offers something different. It would perhaps be food for thought if you were to consider that the main difference between the thinking Right and the thinking Left is that the Right is sufficiently convinced of the strength of its hypotheses not to need to convert them into dogma – hence the more relaxed way in which thinkers of the Right react to contrary opinions. The Left, on the other hand, perpetually need to conceal the improbability of some of its hypotheses, which they do by claiming them to be certainties, and so refusing to subject them to inquiry.

  • Martin S

    @Nicholas and @Simon Stephenson

    I wasn’t making a pro-Ken Livingstone point. (Newt Fancier’s fan club – very witty.)

    From what I remember of Bright’s film, I agreed with some of it.

    I don’t care that Bright hates Ken Livingstone. The point is that Bright was very naive if he was surprised that making that film poisoned his relationship with Labour and the New Statesman.

    If a political journalist who depended on contacts in the Tory party, and who wrote for a Tory readership, attempted to engineer the defeat of a Tory candidate – what would happen? Would that be a good or bad career move if that person wanted to retain his/her position?

    This is why Bright now writes for dreary wingnuts on here. If he thinks he’s a martyr to some sinister plot, he just doesn’t understand politics very well.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Nicholas : 4.23pm

    Yes, it would appear that Erica Blair and Martin S believe that the choice for anyone wishing to promote the correctness of the policies of the Left is stark – support the figureheads in whatever they say, or you will be persona non grata in Leftist circles and isolated from any involvement in the making of policy.

    What an insult to humanity it is to admit that people rise to positions of power despite having such ramshackle arguments that they feel the need to bully potential critics into silence.

  • Baron

    Baron has said it before, amongst the nutters at the top layer of Labour, Darling stood up as the most sensible one when circumstances demanded it most, so much so Baron would have him rather than the Cabling tosser at the Treasury now.

    the postings are right though about your delusional views, Marin, whether on the EDL or other stuff.

  • Nicholas

    I see the two members of the Newt Fancier’s fan club have shown up to post comments. Nothing so hilarious as lefties having a spat with each other – handbags at dawn comrade.

    Yeah, we know all about how Labour value solidarity. Solidarity when lying. Solidarity when cheating. Solidarity when peddling propaganda. Solidarity when ruining the economy and solidarity when ruining the education system. A bit less solidarity from the heirs of Marx and a bit more absence from the levers of power would be very good for Britain. She might just recover from the dastardly privations of 1997-2010.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Erica, Good Heavens, I never notced Martin Bright was a fanatical Zionist. Hos do you racognise these awful guys? What do they say? What do they do? How many of the muslim kaffir has the cursed Moshe Brightstein killed? How does the fellow get away with it? Do tell, dear lady.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Martin Bright : 10.25pm

    Tut tut, Martin – what a disingenuous answer to Rhoda. But then you’re an unshakeable lefty, to whom the core beliefs of left-wingery are in tablets of stone, about which everything else must be twisted and compromised, if necessary, to fit into place.

    It’s clear from this article:-

    that your beef with Gordon Brown was never that he was pursuing unworkable State socialist policies against the flow of logic, reason and popular support, but that he was not going far enough with this – that he was not being socialist enough. To you, he’d allowed his soul to be contaminated by power – you displayed no understanding that actually doing something involves considering the possibility of real failure and downsides, while in theoretical pontification, which is all you ever do, these can just be brushed aside.

    The reality is that you were supremely unconcerned about Brown’s Stalinism as long as he was using it in pursuit of far-left objectives. He could sh*t all over the left’s political opponents, and it didn’t much matter how honestly, fairly and trythfully he did it, as long as he was furthering the socialist cause. In fact, the more gruesomely and comprehensively he and his gang could skewer the sceptics of the left, the better.

    You only cried “foul” when he started using these same tactics against you and your coterie. So let’s have it right, eh?

  • Martin S

    Didn’t you make a hatchet-job documentary about Ken Livingstone for Channel 4?

    And didn’t you do that during the mayoral campaign?

    There are lots of legitimate criticisms a left-wing journalist could make about Ken Livingstone. But the way you made your attack – during his campaign for re-election, when he was the official Labour candidate – was politics, not journalism.

    This is what made your persona non grata in Labour circles. Plenty of Labour people hate Ken. But they tend to value solidarity more. What you did aided his defeat to a Tory.

    If a right-wing journalist did the same thing to a Tory politician, he/she would also get the cold shoulder in Tory circles. It isn’t martyrdom. It’s stupid and naive.

    This is why you’re now blogging for the Spectator.

  • Erica Blair

    Sacking Martin Bright was the best thing the Staggers has done in years. Bright was using the magazine to promote his obsession with Islam (anyone remember his piece entitled ‘The great Koran con trick’?) and his fanatical Zionism.

    It was strange that a Labour supporting magazine should have as its political editor a man who was running a witch-hunt against the Labour Mayor of London while in league with the hard right Policy Exchange ‘think’ tank.

    Bright (like his comrade Nick Cohen)has found his true home

  • Archibald


    Given you admit to being slow of the mark with regards Brown, perhaps you’d like to be able to say you were the first at something?

    Every argument regarding the EDL revolves almost entirely around free speech with little or no actual analysis whatsoever. Such arguments are 10-a-penny right across the web.

    No-one that I have seen in the ‘mainstream’ media is tackling the EDL properly. Because of this, denial of free speech is an argument the EDL have been allowed to grow an increasingly strong position in.

    Surely the argument should be shifted to EDL ideology, the half-truths and the misappropriated arguments of its mission statement, using proper analysis to expose and defeat them? In my view, just talking about free speech and the arguments for and against marches does not do this. It is surely the equivalent of not doing anything and hoping they’ll go away. Don’t you agree that the boil should be lanced rather than being allowed to fester into something worse?

  • Martin Bright

    Rhoda, a simple Google search will give you the answer. Not soon enough. But earlier than some.

  • Archibald

    Who’d have thought that the ‘son of the manse’ could be such a vindictive maniacal little whatsit. And now that Blair talks of regretting not reforming areas, with Goggsy playing the role of “spanner in the works”, we have one more thing to thank him for. NHS, police and other reforms could have been undertaken when the coffers were full, rather than now when the economy is in such dire straights. Given that there must surely be a sermon based around fixing the roof when the sun is shining at least once a month in any given Church of Scotland Kirk, he clearly didn’t pay as much attention to his dad as he made out.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    OK, at what point in time did you realise Brown was a dangerous nutcase? When did you first communicate it to the public, however coded the message?

  • Simon Stephenson.

    “Where Darling is very astute is on recognising that Brown operated with a “who will rid me of this turbulent priest” mentality. This allowed others to act on his behalf, while believing they were doing his master’s bidding.”

    Astute? He’d been closely involved in the rough and tumble of Westminster politics for 20 years – he’d have to have been blind, deaf and dumb not to have worked out what Brown’s strategy was for avoiding having to take responsibility for any of his actions which backfired, or which might reflect badly on him, while at the same time leaving him complete freedom to milk the credit for any of them that didn’t. He knew that Gordon Brown and bad faith go hand in hand, he’d had years of experience of Brown’s megalomaniacal and uncollegiate tactics, and to pretend that the machinations that went on over his replacement were an eye-opener is totally absurd.