Opinion: Nonsense on stilts from Darling

Alistair Darling gave an interview to the Times on Wednesday which has attracted remarkably little comment. While the great distraction – the parliamentary allowance scandal – continues, attention isn’t focused on the Great Recession, or the Government’s part in it.

In the interview the Chancellor predicted that the recession, in the UK, would be over by Christmas. Mr Darling wants electors, not just the Labour faithful, to know that the UK economy is set to be growing strongly by the time of the General Election in 2010. Does this kind of whistling in the dark have a political purpose? I think it does.

It allows him to muddy the waters and wave away the naysayers including the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission. He can even suggest, off camera, that it might be sensible to split the difference with outside forecasters, knowing that there are enough city slickers to keep talk of green shoots alive.

In his interview Mr. Darling took the chance to tell the Times editors (both its Economics and Politics editors took part in the interview) that he wanted to stay at the Treasury. He was, of course, using an opportunity to let his boss know that he remains willing to say in public whatever his boss thinks the times require. Mr Darling’s boss knows that the Chancellor has the handy knack of soaking up punishment and – unlike Mr Brown – not showing it. But, however low key the Chancellor’s public statements may be and reasonable his demeanour, he simply shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

Deception and obfuscation have become the stock in trade of the Treasury. A shift in style, from bullying and media browbeating to dull imperturbability, should not be allowed to disguise the facts of British political and economic life. Robert Chote, Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, is one of those whose been doing an excellent job of pinning down New Labour/Treasury statistical jiggery-pokery.

Chote has pointed out that revised Treasury assumptions are intended to convince us that we have had a bust without a boom. In re-casting its official view about how strongly and sustainably the UK economy can grow – just in time for the 2009 budget – the Government attempted to draw a veil over claims it made about the growth potential of the UK economy in earlier years. Treasury ‘magic’ has also been used to redefine what will count as an economic recovery in the years ahead.

Chote encourages everyone to take a close look at Government assumptions about economic growth since Brown and Blair’s Labour took office in 1997. He demonstrates, to my satisfaction at least, that Brown’s golden touch and that of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee become, when Treasury projections are discounted for Gordonian spin, alchemy in reverse.

Brown’s remarkable way with figures should be viewed as a testament not only to his capacity for self-deception but also to his use of an iron-fist to dispose of whatever is inconvenient and promote whatever is politically convenient. Alan Greenspan, with silkier skills and a more highly developed sense of what might count as financial wizardry, managed much the same in the United States.

Now that we are confronted by a performer of a duller kind we should not allow our attention to wander. Just because Mr. Darling isn’t claiming to be the Emperor or to wear the Emperor’s clothes it should still be apparent to onlookers – the depressingly small number who are paying attention – that he is trying, every bit as hard as his master and predecessor, to flog apparel so finely spun that it isn’t fit to be worn out of doors.

* Ed Randall was a Liberal Democrat councillor in the London Borough of Greenwich from 1982 to 1998, he edited the Dictionary of Liberal Thought jointly with Duncan Brack and lectures on Politics at Goldsmiths University of London.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.

One Comment

  • David Heigham 23rd May '09 - 2:31pm

    Choate of the IFS is undeniably right.

    Ed Randall picks up the economic vacuity of Darling’s interview when all teh rest of us noticed was that he was defying Brown to sack him.

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