Alistair Darling at the RSA

January 15, 2008

Saw Alistair Darling – stocky, box-suited, occasionally wry, surprisingly nervous-looking – speak at the RSA today.

Benedict Brogan has managed to draw some juice out of it, calling it “thoughtful and uncharacteristically personal”, a declaration of political independence from Number 10. I guess seasoned political observers can spot this kind of thing.

So far as I could tell, it was just the usual ideas: economic growth as a way of achieving social ends; building an entrepreneurial culture; fostering aspiration; the challenge of globalisation and climate change. We got one titbit – “in a few weeks time sustainability will be at the heart of the budget”. It was fine.

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The real star of the show was Peter Riddell, who made a response. Reflecting on his 30+ years covering the Treasury, he compared Darling to Dennis Healey, his Labour predecessor as Chancellor as one. The aspirations were the same, he said, but the way of going about things had changed completely.

In the 1970s, the Treasury was solely a macroeconomic department – it didn’t even have a housing policy, let alone a child poverty one. Now, it is primarily a microeconomic department – and, through the tax credit system, a large public spender to boot.

Apparently the key turning points in this transformation were a report by Jeremy Heywood after Black Wednesday, and of course the Chancellorship of a certain G. Brown, notorious for poking his nose into everyone else’s business.

The last few years have seen a huge increase in the tendency to economise everything – education as a functional method of economic advancement; the fact that we need the Stern Report to wake us up to climate change.

I’ve always tended to attribute that to widespread social and cultural forces. Riddell gave an insight into its high political beginnings.

UPDATE: Peter Riddell’s political briefing in The Times today.