Back from the Brink

Alistair Darling’s <em>Back from the Brink</em> is a disjointed but compelling account of his time a

Alistair Darling's story of his time as Gordon Brown's chancellor of the exchequer is intriguingly titled Back from the Brink. There are many brinks in this book - the near-collapse of the British banking system and the world economy, for one. The relationship between Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, and Callum McCarthy, then chairman of the Financial Services Authority, is also said to have been "on the brink of collapse". But the brink that Darling is chiefly concerned with is his relationship with Gordon Brown. Frequently they contemplated divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, but soldiered on like an estranged couple, tied together by old loyalties.

The two were long-standing political allies, and Darling had served under Brown amicably as chief secretary to the Treasury from 1997-98. Yet Brown saw him as a stop-gap chancellor, keeping the seat warm for his protégé Ed Balls, newly elected to parliament, who needed to
acquire ministerial experience. That Darling stayed until the end was the result of Brown's political blunder in not calling a general election in 2007, when he could have won. The British phase of the global crisis started soon after that. By the time Brown tried to remove Darling, in 2009, it was too late.

Brown stalks Darling's story as a continually disturbing presence, impossible to cast off but impossible to settle down with. The book will be remembered, if at all, as an unflattering portrait of him as a political leader. Darling puts much of the blame for Labour's debacle in 2010 on his boss - on his chaotic work habits, his paranoia, his "attack dogs" (Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride) who "briefed" against his supposed enemies, his penchant for consulting with small groups and playing them off against each other, his dithering, his failure to use the cabinet for collective discussion, his political blunders, and so on.

All this may be true, or partly true, but it is only one side of the story, and Brown has not told his version of events (his book Beyond the Crash was devoid of politics). In fact, he soon lost confidence in Darling's ability to stand up to Treasury orthodoxy, especially once the economic tsunami got going in 2008. Whether a Brown-Balls partnership would have made a better fist of things between 2007 and 2010, it is impossible to say. Given the constraints, Labour did not do badly, and this is reflected in the inconclusive result of the 2010 general election. But the politics of Brown and Darling's management of economic policy were terrible. From the summer of 2008, there was an all-too-visible rift between the Treasury View and the Brown View, with Darling caught in the middle. The lack of a coherent narrative undermined the public's confidence in the government's ability to handle the financial crisis.

What exactly was it they disagreed about? It is hard to get a very clear sense of this from Darling's somewhat disjointed storyline. In headline terms, the conflict arose from Brown's determination to portray the dispute between Labour and the Conservatives as being one of "investment v cuts" and Darling's recognition that Labour would have to cut, too. Brown accepted, or came to accept, the need to slash the growing budget deficit, but to him presentation and timing were crucially important. That is why he was furious when Darling, on holiday in the Hebrides in August 2008, was trapped by a Guardian journalist into saying that conditions were "arguably the worst they've been in 60 years", spun in the headline into "Economy at 60-year low, says Darling". (The choice of 60 years illustrates a carelessness with dates which runs through the book: 1949 was certainly a year of economic troubles, but by no means the start of a big downturn. Eighty years would have been accurate.)

Yet presentation and timing do not get to the heart of the matter. Both men were trapped by the lack of an accepted theory with which they could justify rising public deficits in a slump. Darling writes: "In late 2008, I was influenced hugely by Keynes's thinking, as indeed were most other governments dealing with the fallout from the crisis." Stimulus policies, applied nationally and globally, averted a slide into another Great Depression, but the cost to governments of keeping insolvent firms afloat and unemployment down became dreadfully large, calling into question the sustainability of public finances. So, from mid-2009, Keynes was put back in the cupboard and the making of public policy was handed to the bond markets, which demanded austerity. Darling accepted the logic of this and set the Treasury the task - congenial, considering its history - of "balancing the budget". Brown accepted the logic, too, and yet found it intolerable. "I will not be another Philip Snowden," he raged, referring to Labour's pre-Keynesian, budget-balancing chancellor of 1931.

However, because he could neither overthrow Darling nor suggest a coherent alternative, Brown finally had to put the best face he could on his chancellor's deficit-reduction strategy. Darling's last budget, in March 2010, aimed to halve the structural deficit by 2013-2014 in a series of yearly steps. In practice, George Osborne's commitment in his first budget to eliminate it entirely by 2014-2015 was not much different, except for the relish with which it was undertaken. Both plans were equally dependent on estimates of structural deficits and growth forecasts for years ahead which were little better than guesses.

Back from the Brink will be read as a disobliging portrait of a defeated political leader. This is a pity, not only because there is a great deal of admiration for Brown mixed up with the resentment, but also because Darling offers good inside accounts of many other aspects of his chancellorship. His description of the failure of Northern Rock in September 2007, and the dysfunctional system of financial regulation that did not anticipate it or understand its ramifications, is particularly notable. He also refutes the charge that Labour's pre-recession spending had become profligate, but concedes that it assumed "tax receipts would continue to flow in from the financial sector".

The book points to the huge difficulty of making sensible policy in the continual glare of the media spotlight as the press thrived on the crisis. Premature disclosure of the rescue plan for Northern Rock by the BBC's Robert Peston "precipitated the first run on a British bank in more than a century". (Wrong - there were runs on the retail banks in 1914.)

For a politician, Darling writes well, and his story is agreeably if sparsely sprinkled with choice anecdotes and tart observations - the literary equivalent of raising those bushy eyebrows. My favourite is Tony Blair's description of talking to Brown as being like having dental treatment without anaesthetic: "The drilling goes on and on."

And what about Darling? He emerges as able, decent and thoughtful, but he lacked the ability to think "outside the box" that is essential to command Treasury officials who are superb at thinking within a framework of fixed ideas. Nigel Lawson was able to do this as chancellor, and Brown, at his best, could also do it. Darling was a safe pair of hands. In those thousand days, however, one needed something more.

Robert Skidelsky is a crossbench peer. His book "Keynes: the Return of the Master" is published in paperback by Penguin (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.