How should we judge Gordon Brown, this decent, complex, flawed leader?
Will Hutton, The Observer
The former prime minister was a politician of extraordinary ambiguity – a friend of the poor who did much for the rich, and a democrat who feared elections
British politics is unforgiving. Gordon Brown was at the top for 20 years – as shadow chancellor, chancellor and prime minister. He bestrode British economic and political life. But nothing is more complete than political departure. Brown is like a character in Alice in Wonderland. Puff! And he is gone. It is as if he never was.
He is a man of extraordinary ambiguity. He was part of New Labour’s success – and part of its failure. A student of political courage, his own career was pockmarked by a cramping caution – and an appalling tendency to dissimulate. He husbanded his political capital like a Scrooge, but never seemed to have any to spend when it was necessary. He was one of the architects of the credit boom – and then the saviour of the banking system.
He was the genuine friend of the poor and downtrodden, but under his watch Britain developed more dynastic fortunes than ever. He was a democrat who feared elections – warning David Miliband off challenging him in 2007, backing away from a snap general election and then spectacularly imploding in the 2010 campaign. Witty, sharp and insightful in private, in public he is wooden and defensive. He was the most uncollegiate colleague – his taciturn moods, brooding silences and endemic secrecy winning him enemies aplenty.
It is a tragedy how New Labour’s two architects – Blair and Brown – undermined their own construction. They had a chance to realign the left, reshape the Labour movement, reconstitute British capitalism around productive entrepreneurship and marginalise the right for a generation. They wasted the golden opportunity of 50 years – and I think history will be unforgiving. Instead the prospect is a realignment of the right and the marginalisation of the left. Part of the story was their rivalry, with Brown believing he had been cheated of the prime ministership that was his – and undermining Blair at every opportunity, finally organising the regicide of 2007.
But the bigger story was the surrender of principle. If Blair undermined the concept of a 21st-century left by becoming a convert to neoconservatism’s crusade against international fundamentalist Muslim terrorism, as the Afghan and Iraq wars were testimony, Brown did even worse by becoming a convert to neoconservative economics. This was the man who in 1989 had published Where There is Greed: Margaret Thatcher and the Betrayal of Britain’s Future, arguing for detailed public intervention to put right Britain’s "industrial desert". Throughout Blair’s prime ministership he would use his past to position himself as the real socialist committed to egalitarianism and intervention which only Blair obstructed. His coterie of loyalists were duped into believing him. He was no such thing, in reality simultaneously trying to straddle "business" and "fairness" just like Blair but without the flair. The duplicities and incoherence would ultimately bring him down.
Brown did quickly cotton on to the new economic circumstances – globalisation, the emergence of China and India as new Great Powers and the rise of the all-powerful financial markets that had forced the pound out of the ERM. He liked to portray them as all-conquering forces compelling the UK to become more competitive in market-conforming ways and before which the only response was to upgrade working people’s skills.
If there was to be any regulation of finance it had to be within a stronger international regulatory framework; go-it-alone national reform efforts would be useless. Unilateral British measures, he felt, would simply mean that banks and firms would evade laws and regulations and do what they wanted offshore, damaging an important UK industry. If manufacturing was a loser in this inevitable process, the City seemed to be a winner and he accepted without objection City arguments that it paid billions of taxes and created millions of jobs. All that was required in return was light touch regulation. It did not seem a bad bargain.
Brown’s position was understandable in the terms of the times, with the prevailing pro-free market, pro-finance intellectual consensus. I don’t recall any Conservatives protesting much about financial deregulation or the dominance of the City; we critics were a very tiny bunch. But I still don’t think that Brown had to go quite so overboard in his lavish praise and support of Big Finance.
Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the US Federal Reserve, a conservative whose intellectual free market convictions have proved wholly wrong, should have been his ideological foe; instead Brown pushed for his knighthood and saw he was given an honorific plaque in the Treasury. American neoconservatives celebrated another son of the university, Adam Smith, as a hero of economics and the Enlightenment. Brown basked in the reflected glory. It was as shameless and embarrassing as Blair’s courting of George Bush.
In mitigation, as chancellor he did use the tax receipts of the bubble years to build up Britain’s education, health and science base. Thousands of new schools and hospital building across the country will prove a lasting testament to his dedication to improve the public infrastructure.
Although there was massive misallocation of resources under his watch – a huge overinvestment in shopping malls, buy-to-let flats and office blocks – the foundations were also laid of a successful knowledge economy. The sincerity of his commitment to reduce poverty, in Britain and abroad, cannot be doubted. The condition of the working, deserving poor in Britain certainly did improve. But like Blair, Brown did not know what to do about the millions of economically inactive. He bequeaths them to the coalition government.
His finest hour was October 2008. His colleagues heap unctuous praise on him for what he did when the western banking system was on the point of collapse, but the better praise comes from abroad. Paul Krugman, the economist, and Nicolas Sarkozy alike have acknowledged his pivotal and decisive role. He came up with a plan, implemented it and persuaded others to follow – and then doggedly pursued the rest of the G20 to get the vital agreement to expand the IMF and World Bank’s resources. He did not save the world singlehanded – but he was a prime architect.
But from then on it was downhill. He did not have a vision for Britain, despite his promises to provide one. The bitter pill he will have to swallow is that while Blair will join Churchill, Thatcher and Attlee as one of our most significant recent prime ministers, Brown’s tenure will rank as second order – while his chancellorship culminated in the first bank run for more than 100 years, a credit crunch and near Depression.
Still, it is not given to many to be chancellor for 10 years and prime minister for three. But there is no tougher critic of Brown than Gordon Brown. He will know the chance he missed – and it will stay with him for the rest of his life.