Interview: Alistair Darling

Alistair Darling was once the safest pair of hands in the government. A year after

Who'd be Alistair Darling? Once viewed as the safest pair of hands in the government, he has presided over a period of crisis in the Treasury not witnessed since the time of Norman Lamont (and a young adviser called David Cameron) more than a decade and a half ago. Most cabinet ministers consider themselves unfortunate in having to deal with a single serious crisis in their time, two at the most. Darling has faced an avalanche: Northern Rock, the loss of computer discs containing details of 25 million people, criticism of his handling of a new tax on "non-doms", and changes to capital gains tax and corporation tax. He has had to weather the storm over the decision to abolish the 10p rate of income tax inherited from his predecessor, deal with a potentially disastrous downturn in the housing market and the effects of continued hikes in the price of oil.

When we meet on a glorious June day at the Treasury, the Chancellor is in a remarkably sunny frame of mind, all things considered. I wonder if, just sometimes, he felt he was the most unlucky politician alive. "If you're ever tempted to feel sorry for yourself, then that's the day you go away," he replies. "You just have to deal with events." He raises the example of the child benefit discs, lost in November 2007. "When I was phoned up on a Saturday morning and told by the head of Revenue & Customs that they'd lost these tax discs . . . it was obvious to me within 30 seconds that this was a massive political problem and you just have to deal with it. No one would want to go to the House of Commons and explain it the way I had to, but there's no way to get away from it."

Darling is keen to note that he had also foreseen the potential political consequences of the abolition of the 10p tax rate shortly after he took up the Treasury job a year ago. "As you would expect when I became Chancellor, I looked right across the piste to see where we were on a whole lot of things." He interrupts and even completes my question when I begin to ask whether action should have been taken earlier: "Of course," he says. But the key question is whether, when he looked at the 2007 Budget, which contained the 10p proposals, he thought it would prove to be a political problem or something that could be dealt with as a piece of financial tinkering? "Well," he says,"what I noticed was that a lot of people would be paying more tax."

At no point does Darling show the least sign of disloyalty to Gordon Brown, but he is keen to emphasise that he was well aware of the potentially toxic nature of the 10p tax rate abolition as soon as he took over from his old friend at the Treasury. He made a similar claim to the Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley during an interview for his recent Channel 4 documentary on Brown; so it would appear that Darling is not prepared to act as the fall guy for the government's woes over the 10p tax-band fiasco.

It's the economy, stupid

In the spirit of fair play I ask him to take me through the past year and give me his perspective on the predicament in which the government presently finds itself. "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."

Alistair Darling has the disarming habit, for a politician, of admitting when he and the government have got things wrong. For instance, although he believes it was right to simplify capital gains tax and create a single rate of 18 per cent in his pre-Budget report last October, he acknowledges that this hit small businesses too hard, forcing him to back-track three months later.

His ready admission of mistakes makes his defence more credible than it would otherwise be, when he talks about criticism he sees as unfair. On Northern Rock he is unrepentant. "I'm not apologising for one moment for what we did. We set out to prevent Northern Rock's problems from spreading to the rest of the banking system and we succeeded." He firmly believes the government did everything it could to find a private-sector buyer for the bank and that nationalisation was the only option.

On legislation to bring in a £30,000 a year tax on wealthy foreigners who have made their home in Britain, Darling points out that he stuck to his guns on the tax, despite talk of a possible climbdown in February during the consultation period. "What I announced last October is what is in force. I'm not saying anyone is happy to pay tax, but I think most people would think it's not unreasonable. It's a question of fairness."

Radical suggestion

Which brings us back to the 10p issue. "It was a costly mistake for us, because after ten years of systematically going through the tax system to help the middle- and lower-income people in this country . . . this appeared to send a different message."

Darling believes that Labour needs a significant shift in emphasis if it is to woo back the voters necessary to win the next election. "We have in the past ten years helped a lot of people on middle and low incomes," he says. But he adds: "The political challenge to us now is that there are a lot of people, for example, without children, or whose children have grown up who say, 'I'm in favour of helping families and in favour of ending child poverty, but I'm also in favour of helping people like me.' "

Darling, for all his natural caution, makes a radical suggestion for Labour's strategy for the next election. "We have to go into the next election almost with the mentality of an opposition party and say what it is we want to do at the next stage, what it is we think is wrong that still needs to be put right."

It is notoriously difficult to get the Chancellor to talk about his personal life. But I was curious to know what stirred his passions. Why, for instance, did this privately educated son of Conservative-voting parents end up as a Labour politician? What attracted him to the cause? "In a nutshell, it was fairness," he says. "I think it's unfair that some people, through no fault of their own, are held back and can never do the best they're capable of."

I ask if he can remember a particular moment, but he says it was just something that grew on him. He joined in 1977, during one of the previous dark times for the party - two years before a Tory landslide.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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