The drama of an evening spent at Fitzwilliam College’s Auditorium listening to former Chancellor Alistair Darling, now Lord Darling of Roulanish (it’s an island off the east coast of the Scottish Highlands) came from the fact that it took place on the evening of the day Article 50 was triggered – an event so seismic that on Radio 4’s Today programme historian David Starkey compared it to the break with Rome initiated by Henry VIII.
The annual EG Lectures have already hosted Lords Heseltine and Kerslake and this occasion was entitled ‘Lord Darling of Roulanish on Brexit, what next?’, so the audience – many from London but also from as far away as Chelmsford – knew what they were in for.
“What I find striking,” Darling began, “is that wherever you go there are only two topics of conversation: Brexit and Trump – and Scotland if you want to annoy people.
“I’m going to talk about both these things and as you know today the United Kingdom’s Government has formally asked to leave the European Union and Article 50 was invoked and this is the biggest change in our economic policy, and our foreign policy, for generations to come.”
There was the sense, he said, that the period between the Referendum and the triggering of Article 50 had been a “phoney war” and the real discussions are now under way – not just within the UK but, at least as importantly, with our European Union partners.
“This week is a staging post for a much bigger set of decisions in a couple of years’ time and frankly I don’t think this is going to be done and dusted in two years – it’ll be a lot longer than that.
“If you look at politics today the Prime Minister says she wants the country to unite but referendums do not unite, they divide… there is no sense of unity. One of my fears is that the Brexit nationalists could tear the UK apart and there’s a complete absence of compromise.”
Could Britain “tear itself apart” over Brexit? Anything’s possible in today’s febrile world and at the current time there’s a political impasse in Northern Ireland, the Scottish Parliament has voted to pursue a second referendum – even though “the majority of people in Scotland don’t want a second referendum” – and the possible breakup of the United Kingdom is just one example of the swathe of unintended consequences Brexit has hauled through the door. Darling noted that “a failure to understand the risks and a failure to understand what happens when things get out of control” is in the mix.
He knows all about disasters. As Chancellor during the financial crash of 2007-8 he was presented with an entirely unpredictable set of circumstances which culminated in a phone call from the RBS chairman who explained the difficulties of suddenly coming to terms with junk debt on a vast and unprecedented scale.
“So I asked: ‘How long can you last?’ and the chairman said: ‘Two or three hours.’”
The – hasty! – decision to avoid total catastrophe identified that “at the end of the day there is only one lender of last resort and that is the government. People simply didn’t understand the risks to which they had become exposed and it was then that I was told by a leading banker that ‘From now on we’ll only take risks we understand’.”
This delightfully dry payback rightly drew laughter but the fact remains the ordeal left scars which never healed. “You have to understand that politics is not just about the economics – the backwash from the financial crisis has provided fertile ground in which nationalism can grow.”
Of course immigration played a significant part in the referendum outcome – “we stopped talking about it ten years ago” – but Darling points out that the narrative has since been taken forward by the Conservatives. “I think referendums are an extremely bad way of sorting anything out and I think David Cameron had this one because he thought he could sort out the Tory Party.”
Nor does Theresa May escape unscathed. “It’s fair to say that Theresa May has a cunning plan and it’s so cunning we’re not allowed to know about it.” The Labour Party is worryingly off the pace too. “There is no effective opposition at the moment and that has encouraged the right to move towards a hard Brexit and I think it’s very dangerous and very bad that there is no middle ground.
“I don’t accept this nonsense that no deal is better than a bad deal: no deal would be a disaster for us.”
The day, however dramatic, did not signal that we have left the EU, but that we have initiated the process by which we will leave the EU. By the turn of the year there could be no EU anyway. “If France and Germany left that would kill it.” And triggering Article 50 is not the end. “Germany wants to keep us in basically and I think that’s something we need to exploit.”
We also need patience. “Until we see who the next French President is and particularly who the next German Chancellor is we won’t be able to see what the lie of the land is.”
Like the financial meltdown of ten years ago we find ourselves in a situation where “there’s a lot of moving parts”. Today’s crop doesn’t include the subprime market but does include “the Greek problem [which] still hasn’t been sorted out, and 3.5m of their citizens living here and 1.5m of our citizens living there”. And the £50bn bill for exiting, and the fact “there has to be unanimity with 27 nations… the process is going to be complicated”. It’s a game of high stakes but at the end of the day Darling believes that “whatever deal we get it will be worse than the deal we have at the moment”. Even so, other EU nations may choose a similar path. “We’ve taken a decision any one of them might take some day, so we need to ask: what should Europe be?”
A fascinating evening concluded with a Q&A which Darling handled with quiet courtesy although the last question, about proportional representation, clearly irritated him.
“There are many reasons why people voted to leave but the lack of proportional representation doesn’t make a blind bit of difference – proportional representation leads to coalition governments.”
The chair, Estate Gazette editor Damian Wild, said: “We can discuss proportional representation…” which Darling rebutted with “No, certainly not!” before concluding by sharing that the perfect day for the man who was created Baron Darling of Roulanish, of Great Bernera in the county of Ross and Cromarty, in 2015 includes the chance “to listen to Leonard Cohen, and that should give you some idea of where I’m coming from”.
Hallelujah to that at least.