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This review is of the paperback book "Back from the Brink" by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling. The book was published in hardback in 2011 and reprinted in paperback with some slight amendments in 2012.
Alistair Darling was one of the few politicians who survived in the Cabinet from the election of Tony Blair in May 1997 through and uninterrupted until Labour's defeat in the polls in 2010, only Jack Straw and Gordon Brown managed to stay as long. This book isn't so much of an autobiography but a look at the financial situation he oversaw when he was Chancellor, although there are moments when he looks back to his past.
Darling held a number of jobs throughout his time in Government, he started off as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1997, working with Gordon Brown, until he was promoted to run his own department in 1998 as Secretary of State for Social Security. Seen as a safe pair of hands he remained there until moved to the Department of Transport in 2002, and he was also made Secretary of State for Scotland in addition to his transport role in 2003. In 2006 he became the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and then possibly most importantly, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, Darling became the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
When Darling became Chancellor the economy was performing well, there had been a credit boom throughout previous years and most western countries were in periods of long growth. Governments, and individuals, were spending more freely than they perhaps should have done, but were able to do with credit more easily available and house prices rising. But soon after his appointment the world changed, and the most talked about economic recession hit, with queues forming outside Northern Rock with savers wanting their money out, and then a whole series of financial collapses, the effect of which lives on today nearly five years later.
This book takes the reader through these financial disasters, and shows just how in trouble the economy was. In October 2008, after a year of the bank saying that it thought it had enough money, the boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland (also known as RBS, who owned Natwest) phoned the Chancellor and said that they were going bust that afternoon. The effects weren't just theoretical, the bank's cheques wouldn't be honoured, the branches would be closed and locked that evening and the administrators called in. For a politician from any party, this was a fairly dramatic pressure.
Without getting into the politics of who caused what and why, the Government and Alistair Darling were on top of the situation in many ways, because they had been prepared with the collapse of Northern Rock the year before. In this book Darling explains how the Government introduced legislation to let them take over banks, which is what happened with the RBS. But as he notes, signing cheques for tens of billions of pounds to buy the bank shares was a troublesome time for him.
Although only those interested in economics and politics are likely to pick up this book, it is a very readable title I found. The terms are explained throughout, and the author doesn't assume that the reader has a knowledge of the financial markets, but also doesn't patronise the reader. Alistair Darling doesn't suggest that he got everything right, but he explains what he did and why throughout the financial crisis, and his view of the economic situation was interesting. Reading the book, it isn't hard to see why he took certain actions, even though at the time they may have seen a bit dramatic or difficult to understand, the Chancellor was certainly aware of a lot of potentially frightening news about the economy.
The other angle of this book is a look at how he worked with Gordon Brown, and it paints a quite sorry tale of life in Downing Street. Darling explains how he was omitted from many meetings, and how Gordon Brown wanted Ed Balls to be Chancellor, and tried on numerous occasions to make this happen. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister the economic and political situation, as well as politicians such as James Purnell, Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt already critical of the Government, made such a move difficult.
This left Alistair Darling in a difficult position, he knew he wasn't the Prime Minister's choice to be Chancellor, but in all credit, he carried on until the end, knowing that whatever the outcome of the General Election, he'd likely be returning to the backbenches. He details in the book the arguments and confusion coming from 10 Downing Street and Gordon Brown, and how it made it hard to write Budgets and know what the economic policy was, which is a bit worrying for a Chancellor to admit.
Overall, I found this book very readable and interesting, and a superb introduction to the economic situation of the last few years. Darling of course defends his position, but he doesn't do so in an arrogant or "I knew best" mode, but does try and explain his actions. Putting political views aside, he does come across as a reasonable politician, who from the choice available, was probably one of the safest pair of hands in Government over the time he was a Cabinet Minister.
The paperback book retails at 9.99 pounds and the ISBN is 9780857892812, published by Atlantic Books. At the time of writing the book is available for around 5.50 pounds from Amazon themselves, including postage, with third party sellers only a little cheaper. There is also a hardback edition, which retails at 19.99 pounds but can be found on Amazon for around 12.99 pounds including postage, the ISBN for this is 9780857892799.
Inevitably many people won't be interested in the subject matter of this book, which is effectively the economy from 2007 until 2010, but I'd strongly recommend it for anyone with a passing interest in politics or the economy during this time. It's a good introduction which I didn't find overly partisan, but will stand as an interesting record of the years of Labour rule, especially during the period which Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. In summary therefore, an interesting book from a Chancellor of the Exchequer who had some of the toughest economic circumstances imaginable to deal with.