Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Don't slouch, Darling

The feeling of dread is familiar to anyone who has returned to work from a summer holiday only to be confronted by an inbox bulging with hundreds of unopened items. For Alistair Darling, however, it’s a feeling that’s probably amplified tenfold right now. The past few days have not been the greatest for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who managed to jolt us out of our silly season stupor with just a few words said off the cuff during an interview with The Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead on Saturday. The British economy, he said, is in the worst shape it has been in for 60 years. He also acknowledged that the public were “pissed off” with Labour and that the party needed to do better.

On reading the interview in full (here), Darling comes across as less of a schemer and more of a doer than many of his contemporaries in the Labour party. He answers questions straightforwardly, doesn’t hide his biases or intentions, and seems more honest than most politicians when it comes to the media. Yet none of this seems to matter now, for in the days since that interview went to press, the value of the pound and the FTSE have plummeted to new lows, and both downturns are being attributed directly to Darling’s gloomy view of the economy.

The obligatory Newsnight interview was aired last night, and it made for uncomfortable viewing. Darling was rigidly on the defensive, but looked acutely uncomfortable as Gavin Esler laid into him for not being careful enough in his choice of words when he must have known they would have wider repercussions.

For all the usual voter complaints that politicians aren’t open and honest enough, ironically it seems that the economy is one area in which the government needs to maintain a certain propaganda threshold at all times, but particularly when the country’s finances are looking a bit rough. In the economic uncertainty we are now living with, any statement that betrays a feeling of failure or a loss of control on the government's part will be interpreted by the myriad forces that govern the financial markets as a sign that the country is uninvestable. Result, as Dickens would say: misery. Stockbrokers, with their notoriously busy workloads, are hardly going to trouble themselves reading the full-length article and pondering the deeper meaning of Darling's words or appreciate his honesty. All that they--and many others besides-- will see is a swirl of media headlines screeching about Darling's latest "gaffe" and how the "bumbling Chancellor" has plunged Britain into even more uncertainty with his doom and gloom.

It's a depressing state of affairs, but not one that can be blamed uniquely on media hysterics. The stock market is a volatile creature, and never more so than when there's a recession around the corner. Darling's Guardian interview and the ensuing fracas will, I feel, fade away relatively quickly, but--following the temporary reprieve of the Beijing Olympics--it does mark the opening salvo in what will likely be a sustained media attack on the Labour government for the rest of the year. Darling should take away from this the fact that his words and actions no longer represent just him, they represent the future of the country's wealth. A tall order? You bet.


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