Britain’s former Chancellor has all the answers to the Eurozone crisis – he’s been there and done it before. Unfortunately, his experience and talent isn’t being used to help solve the problem.
Darling on the Eurozone
When I interviewed Alistair Darling last Wednesday, in the midst of the Greek referendum chaos, he was – as you might expect of a seasoned politician speaking to a rookie journalist – incisive, articulate and self-assured. Asked what lies at the heart of the Eurozone problem, he didn’t blame the unfairness of capitalism (the ‘Red Ed’ argument); he didn’t think the underlying problem was nasty chancellors slashing spending (the Ed Balls point scorer); he didn’t point the finger at lazy Greek people (the Norman Tebbit accusation). Instead, he suggested something somewhat deeper: a problem with democracy. Pointing out the obvious – but often overlooked – concern that a country of just over 11million people has the power to “derail the world economy”, Darling offered the following plan to save the world: policies to stimulate economic growth; recapitalisation of the banks; and a rescue fund that actually exists (as opposed to the highlt-leveraged version we hypothetically have now). Oh, and a stick with which Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy can beat George Papandreou and his chums over their annoying little heads. The leaders of the Eurozone countries, he argued, have simply “failed to do enough” in solving the immediate problem, allowing the sore to fester into a sticky mess. While he admittedly didn’t put it in quite these terms, the effect of Mr Darling’s argument was that we need to summon the ‘spirit of 2009’ (when he and Mr Brown (I like to think of them as Batman and Robin) saved the world economy), bash a few heads together and tell those nice people on the Mediterranean that they’d better like it or leave it. Of course, this isn’t the sum total of his prescription: he tackled the delicate issue of austerity versus investment with sufficient assurance to leave me ruing the follow-up questions I hadn’t asked him; noted that Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio is forecast to be higher in 2020 than it is now; and acknowledged that a “combination of measures” in concert is required if we want a sustainable return to growth. So, the Eurozone problem pretty much solved, then.
Darling on Ed Miliband
Moving onto a more difficult question, and not wanting to pass up the opportunity to be cliched, I moved onto UK politics: “Don’t times like these call for people with more experience than, say, Ed Miliband?” Darling assured me that leader of the opposition is “one of the most difficult jobs in politics”, and that Cameron and Thatcher had equally struggled to assert themselves from the off. “But aren’t you worried about the lack of progress he’s made so far?” He explained this away by joking that the the Liberal Democrats triggering a general election would be like turkeys voting for Christmas, so Ed has plenty of time to prepare himself before he gets to the business end of things. In an echo of his critique of democracy, the former Chancellor told me that “politics is like that”, perhaps implying that naïve journos like myself shouldn’t waste so much time over-analysing and second-guessing.
Darling on the Tories
So what does he think of the other side? Perhaps the recent figures showing the UK’s (admittedly anaemic) economic growth, set against the backdrop of Euro meltdown, gives weight to the arguments of slasher Osborne and his rigid ‘Plan A’ doctrinaires, I mused. Not so, came the predictable reply: “After such a deep recession, you would expect to see a bounce back… other countries, such as Germany are growing… the real problem is that we’re planting the seeds of youth unemployment.” On this last point, Darling became more animated, expounding his thesis of the lack of adequate housing, detachment from society and a lost generation. While keen to avoid the link between this and summer’s riots (“they weren’t a political protest”), he stressed the social impact of joblessness, implying that steady employment is one of the necessary conditions for the peaceful rise of today’s youth. The man we regard as sensible, unruffled and centrist (in comparison with his successor as Labour’s economic-policy figurehead) was also quick to preempt the politics behind this: when asked if a measure such as the Living Wage would squeeze even more young people out of the jobs market, he drew on the example of Michael Howard, who had argued similarly when the National Minimum Wage was introduced. Rather than damping economic growth and excluding those currently unemployed, Darling assured me that employment had increased when the minimum wage came in; I didn’t think quickly enough to question the conflation of correlation and causality.
Darling on himself
What I really wanted to ask Alistair Darling was about his own future. If you followed UK politics closely last Wednesday, you’ll have noticed a bit of a storm (so much so that I thought fit to congratulate him on again outshining his party leader (“not what I was trying to do”)) around the man in question, who, strangely enough, was the only person to question David Cameron on the Eurozone during PMQs. Conservative Alan Duncan even described it as “better than all six of Miliband’s questions”. It was’t really the question – essentially “when are we going to see some details of the Eurozone deal?” – that intrigued me, but the fact he’d asked it. As Darling himself pointed out, it was the first time he’d questioned the Prime Minister in PMQs for thirteen years (admittedly he’d be less likely to do so of a Labour PM), which made me think ‘why now?’
Perhaps too simply, I drew the connection between this, his revealing smile on Daily Politics when asked about a return to front bench politics a year ago (he seemed to suggest he only wanted a year out: http://bbc.in/sq6nIy), the release of Back From The Brink a month ago and that he’s apparently so hungry for publicity that he’d spend 20 minutes talking to me. Is Alistair Darling going to get back into the issues that really matter? Apparently not. He seems happy, nay relieved to be out of the cut-and-thrust of party infighting, cheap political point scoring and parliamentary intrigue. That much is understandable. But when I asked whether he ought to do more with his experience, he seemed a little quick to retort that he can have great influence as a backbench MP, and that he can now “pick and choose” the issues in which he wants to get involved. But isn’t it a shame that such an obviously-talented and highly experienced operator isn’t doing more to help solve some of the potentially catastrophic problems that are affecting each one of us every day? Perhaps this is a reflection of my own naïve belief in the potential for politics to deliver change for the better – I’m a 22-year-old PPEist, after all. But maybe the Darlings of this world ought to be helping out the Papandreous a bit more. Britain’s former Chancellor is difficult to read: he certainly talks down any prospect of a return to front-line politics, but some of the evidence seems to point the other way.
Unsatisfied by his position, I thought I’d use the last few seconds of our interview to draw the former Chancellor back into the world of serious politics: “Will you pledge right now that if the Eurozone crisis is finally resolved, you’ll dye your eyebrows blue and gold in celebration?” “Certainly not!”