The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times
by Lionel Barber (W. H. Allen, £25.00 / €20.25)
Over Christmas, I read the book with the above arresting title. It is by Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times for the past 15 years, who has just retired.
It is a gallop through the last decade and a half of economic and political history in the form of a diary.
Mr Barber did not actually keep a daily diary but he did make notes on important events and meetings at the time, and these provide the content of this book. Where his opinion has changed since, he includes a note in a different script, beside the original.
He gets to the heart of the economic crisis of 2008 quite early in the book. He blames it on competition between banks, who used new and obscure forms of credit to increase their revenues unsustainably, because they feared that, if they failed to do so, the private equity firms, who wanted revenue growth for their clients, would desert them.
I am unsure that this structural problem in capitalism has since been solved, and we are now living through another rapid expansion of credit on artificially favourable terms. Let’s see what happens…
As editor, Lionel Barber inherited a Blairite newspaper. The FT had backed Labour in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 general elections. He switched to support the Tories in the 2010 General election. Under Lionel Barber, the FT even supported David Cameron in the fateful general election of 2015.
As Mr Barber put it at the time: “We are holding our noses over Cameron’s Europe policy and his planned referendum (on Brexit). On balance, the case for continuity rests on the economic record of the coalition government.”
Given the FT’s strong support for EU membership, the FT got that call spectacularly wrong in 2015.
Ed Miliband, as the alternative prime minister, would not have led Britain to exit from the EU. Jeremy Corbyn would never have led the Labour Party.
Mr Barber is right when he says that no British government had ever made a serious political argument for EU membership, but if you vote for politicians, like Mr Cameron, who have a superficial understanding of the EU, that should not be a surprise.
Under Lionel Barber’s editorship, the FT enjoyed commercial success, and adapted well to the digital media world. It hosted some spectacularly good columnists. Martin Wolf and Philip Stephens spring to mind, but there are many others.
Looking forward, Lionel Barber sees unregulated competition between the United States and China as the number one threat to the world. I agree. The risk of military conflict between them remains real.
He also sees risks to democratic representative governance, if democratic states are perceived to fail in managing problems like Covid-19.
There are lots of anecdotes, and indiscreet word pictures of global figures in this book. But the author remains the star in his own show.