Saturday, June 21, 2008

Gordon's paper anniversary

In today's column in the Newcastle Journal, I concede that I got it wrong about Gordon Brown. Well, sort of. You'll have to read to the end to find out what I mean!


This Friday, June 27, Gordon Brown will mark what, in usual circumstances, would be a significant political milestone – the first anniversary of his succession to the premiership.

When 12 months ago the newly-elected Prime Minister addressed the nation outside No 10 Downing Street, little could he have imagined how quickly his fortunes would turn around.

He spoke then of his old school motto: “I will try my utmost.” Later, in his first Labour Party conference speech as premier, he promised: “I will not let you down.”

But sadly, that is exactly what he has done. Indeed for many people, to describe the Brown premiership as a let-down would be the understatement of the century.

Over the years leading up to Mr Brown’s accession to the top job, there was a widespread view among centre-left commentators that he would be an improvement on what had gone before.

Since I was one of those who shared that analysis, this column amounts to something of a mea culpa.

We thought that Mr Brown would cast off his customary dourness once he got to No 10. We thought he would put an end to spin. We thought he would lead the Labour Party in a fresh and radical new direction.

And on all of those scores, the truth of the matter is that we got him wrong.

Part of my optimism about Mr Brown as a putative Prime Minister was based on my knowledge of him as a private man, and the hope and expectation that his personal qualities would shine through once he assumed the top job.

In all my admittedly limited dealings with them, I found he and Tony Blair to be an almost exact reversal of their public personas.

On the three occasions I interviewed Mr Blair for this newspaper, I found him shy, ill-at-ease and totally unable to make even the most rudimentary small-talk.

Mr Brown, by contrast, I found charming, witty, eager to engage in conversation - in short, nothing like the grim Stalinist control-freak he is now widely perceived as.

There were other grounds for optimism. Mr Brown had always portrayed himself as the serious one in the Blair-Brown partnership, and after a decade of showmanship from Mr Blair, the public seemed ready for that.

Allied to this was a feeling that the new man would eschew then reliance on spin that tarnished the Blair era - “not Flash, just Gordon” as the slogan put it.

It could have been a winner, but as the commentator Jonathan Freedland pointed out this week, Brown himself put paid to it by his behaviour over the election-that-never-was last autumn.

“The effect was to show that Brown was as much a calculating schemer as anyone else in the trade – he just wasn’t very skilful or subtle at it. Not flash, just a politician,” he wrote.

But above all, our optimism about Gordon Brown was based on his long record of championing the social justice agenda within a government that often seemed careless of traditional Labour values.

He, after all, was the Chancellor who quietly redistributed billions of pounds to the worst-off in society via his system of tax credits.

He was the man whose successive comprehensive spending reviews pumped billions more into the vital public services on which the worst-off in society most depended.

And he was the man who, each September, would stand up and reassure the party faithful that real Labour “var-lews” as he called them had not been forgotten despite all appearances to the contrary.

Was he just playing to the left-wing gallery all that time? Well, it would seem so.

When Mr Brown took over, the expectation was that he would “hit the ground running” with a blitz of an announcements designed to signal a clean break with the Blair era.

In his statement outside No 10, he appeared to encourage that view, declaring that this would be a “new government with new priorities” and concluding with the words: “Now let the work of change begin.”

But to paraphrase an old political joke, while he may have been elected as New Brown, but he has governed very much as Old Blair.

So there has been no attempt, for instance, to tackle the widening inequalities in our society, or address the decline in social mobility that occurred throughout the Thatcher-Major-Blair years.

And far from drawing a line under Mr Blair’s foreign policy disasters, if anything last week’s press conference with President Bush showed him in full Blair mode.

Our expectations of Mr Brown weren’t purely based on wishful thinking. Radical plans for his premiership were indeed drawn up before he took over, some of which were briefed in advance to journalists.

But when it came to the crunch, Mr Brown bottled it, just as he bottled out of the election and just as he has now bottled out of taking on David Davis over 42-day detention – a decision he may well come to regret.

The real tragedy, though, is that we didn’t really get Mr Brown wrong at all. He is indeed all those things we always thought he was.

He is a decent, serious man with a passion for social justice and an overriding concern for the underdog. What he lacked was simply the political courage to be himself once he got to No 10.

That fatal loss of nerve is the single biggest reason why Gordon won’t be hanging out the bunting as he marks his first anniversary this Friday, and why his primary emotion will be one of relief at having lasted even a year.

I for one would currently lay reasonably long odds against him making it to two

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Anonymous said...

The greatest threat to the Labour government at the moment is that the Conservatives will realise the potential potency of the politics of value. For more than a decade Labour have made a certain tax-and-spend paradigm the cornerstone of their appeal. They argued that the keys means of achieving public service improvement was higher spending, that spending more constituted a sort of achievement, and that any tax cuts were disguised spending cuts. This was a politics of scale and bigness: more is good, less is bad, quality and efficiency don’t come into it.

This was remarkably successful coming out of a period of Thatcherite decay, when New Labour was fresh and untainted and the economy growing robustly enough to obscure the zero-sum game of taxation and personal consumption. Those conditions have now been dissipated and the British public is ripe for a different type of politics – one which emphasises value. The Conservatives can destroy the government if they start to advocate a more-for-less politics and to argue that value should be the key measure of political success, not raw magnitude. This politics is a loaded shotgun which the Conservatives have to hand with which they can put the government out of its misery.

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Anonymous said...

What odds are you prepared to lay Paul. I will take 3/1 against Brown still being PM 2 years after he first became PM. Are you happy to oblige?

Anonymous said...

'an overriding concern for the underdog' Right, so that's why, as Chancellor, he scrapped the 10p rate, a decision which left at least one person I know worse off despite a £25 a month pay rise.

Decent and serious? Well those two aspects of his character weren't much in evidence when he flew to Iraq during the Tory Party conference.

Yes, he's shown some concern for the underdog, through other policies (such as doubling international aid), but I wouldn't describe it as overriding.

All the same, I share your abhorrence, Paul, of Richard Littlejohn's disgraceful references to Brown's 'kiddy fiddler' smile. Utterly disgusting stuff.

Anonymous said...

Firstly I would say Browns smile reminds me of the alien Doctor, Flox, in 'Star Trek Enterprise'.

And it makes me queasy.

As for the rest - I am afraid you don't get Brown do you?

Never mind the small talk, he is a control freak who lives in his own little world.
The 10p is a classic.
He did not believe the issue was a problem because he believed his own propaganda over tax credits and he also ignorantly believed it was OK to take money off people if they were willing to fill in an umpteen page application to get their own money back.

And of course such is the man's moral compass that he was willing to do all this (rob poverty stricken Peter to pay middle class Paul) to simply give some tangible result to his 10 year tenure of No.11 in order to further his own rise to the top of the greasy pole.

Sorry but Brown is a piece of that stuff on the pavement that the current local authority advertising is so proud to tell us they clean up.

Anonymous said...

You mean the shark-like grin he flashed after Blair was forced to announce his departure, and when Darling pinched the Tory inheritance tax plans? Your comparison is far more tasteful than the Richard Littlejohn comparion, anyway.