Gordon Brown's Britain

Think rough cut oats. Envision the three sons of a Church of Scotland minister tucking into their breakfast porridge in the mid 1950’s, cutting their spiritual teeth on Dad’s stern Presbyterian theology and being toughened up by the bracing Scottish climate. The middle son, James Gordon Brown, was a good student. He was placed on an academic fast track, gaining admission to the University of Edinburgh as a history major at the age of 16. A rugby accident had left him blind in one eye. He narrowly escaped total blindness by virtue of a series of operations and treatments which required him to lie still for days on end in a dark room. Formative stuff for any young man.

At 24, Brown debuted as a serious writer. His tract — Red Paper on Scotland: The Socialist Challenge — advocated “public ownership” and something he called “community democracy.” Brown stayed on in Edinburgh to write his doctoral thesis on James Maxton, a winsome 20th century socialist politician.

A career in politics for James Gordon Brown was inevitable. He focused his fierce Protestant ethic on campaigning for others (including the redoubtable Robin Cook) and people noticed. In 1983, at the age of 32, Brown was elected as a Member of Parliament. So was Tony Blair, then only 30.

The British have a phrase — like chalk and cheese — to describe things which are opposites, but not the kind which attract. Gordon and Tony were always chalk and cheese. Where Brown was described as dour, complex, and bad in social situations, Blair was the boisterous schoolboy who was nearly expelled for being “cheeky.” Politics was his second choice. He wanted to be a rock star. Despite these glaring differences, Brown and Blair climbed up the Party ranks together through the 1990’s until — in a meeting which has since become a scene in a made-for-TV movie — they found themselves sitting in an London restaurant having dinner. Both wanted to be the Prime Minister, but Blair convinced the charismatically challenged Brown that he should run first. He would enthrall the masses, lure them to vote Labour, and together they could turn England into heaven on earth. Blair promised he would then hand off power to Brown. In 1997, Tony Blair became the youngest Prime Minister in British history. Gordon Brown took the job as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post equivalent to Secretary of the Treasury. His teachers had always lauded Brown’s mathematical prowess.

Fast forward to May 2007. Tony Blair has clung to power for a decade while Gordon Brown waited in the wings. Blair finally says he is stepping aside. Sort of. Gordon Brown is — at long last — the heir apparent, although the Blair endorsement lacks fervor. The chattering classes erupt. One press wag calls Brown “the biggest unknown in British politics,” but that is far from the truth.

He has been the subject of two biographies, one of which is considered definitive (Brown’s Britain by Robert Preston) and another, unauthorized portrait, by Tom Bower, reviewed as “an agreeable hatchet job.” More of the Brown agenda is revealed in his best selling book: "Where There is Greed: Margaret Thatcher and the Betrayal of Britain’s Future." More recently, he wrote the Introduction for the 50th anniversary edition (2006) of Anthony Crosland’s classic, "The Future of Socialism." No mystery here.

Brown’s speeches as Exchequer are all part of the public record, as is his on-the-job performance. In the last category, there are some Brown moves which are simply colossal screw-ups. For a start, the 1997 premiere New Labour budget fiddled with the tax dividend and credit rules regarding pension funds, while government pensions were extended extra protections. To date, the estimated loss to private British pension funds is set at ₤100 billion. All over England, millions of families have lost the retirement incomes on which they had counted. Many have had to sell their homes to pay for extended medical care or to spare their children horrific death duties. For two years, Chancellor Gordon Brown did all he could to prevent the release of financial reports which indicated the extent of the damage done to the UK’s reasonably sound pension scheme. Finally, his critics used the British equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain papers which revealed Gordon Brown had, in fact, been warned off this plan by officials working in the Treasury.

In May of 1999, ignoring the advice of the Governor of The Bank of England, and with most of the Parliament away from Westminster, Brown announced his intention to sell off half of the country’s gold reserves, leaving Britain with the lowest bullion holdings of any major country. This triggered a precipitous drop in gold prices, but Brown soldiered on. He sold off 415 tons of gold, and used 40% of the proceeds to buy Euros, and with the rest he purchased a mixture of dollars and yen. The estimated loss generated by this action was in the vicinity of ₤ 4 billion, which, along with many other failed economic policies, inspired the following question to be posted recently on an Internet poll: Has Gordon Brown killed the goose that lays the golden eggs and cooked his own at the same time? “Gordon Brown is clearly not the financial version of Yoda,” scoffed one participant in the comments section.

Brown’s freshly launched campaign tells us much more which is worrisome. Tony Blair had barely finished his farewell speech and was still wiping away tears and blowing a goodbye kiss to his supporters (yes, he did), when the website of New Labour experienced a miraculous makeover. Brand Blair vanished and the red rose was returned as the Party’s logo. Wanting to demonstrate the common touch, Brown took the London Underground all around town to meet with supporters. One press wag described this style of politicking as “the carpet bombing approach.” But later in the day, a TV appearance featuring bad camera angles and sound problems made Brown seem like a latter day Nixon. There is a resemblance. Observers have noted that Brown looks like he hasn’t shaved, even when he has. He also has that unfortunate squint which moved a Daily Mail reader to compare Brown’s campaign speeches to a man pleading his case before the parole board.

By the next day, it was clear that Brown intended on slicing clean through the chalk and cheese divide. He promised, upon becoming Prime Minster around the first of July, to institute a flurry of reforms designed to increase government accountability, especially regarding decisions about going to war. Brown’s agenda here is made clear by his appointment of former Home and Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, as his campaign manager. Rumor has it that Blair took Straw out of the foreign office a few years back at the behest of George W. Bush. True or not, Straw had become increasingly vocal in his opposition to the war in Iraq and has since made so many visits to Tehran that he has acquired the nickname “Ayatollah Straw.” For his part, Brown says he plans visits to Afghanistan and Iraq as soon as possible to “listen and learn.” It is no secret that he and Straw want to end British military involvements in the Middle East as fast as they can manage it.

“I want a government humble enough to know its own place,” Brown announced, an unmistakable jab at the often Presidential-like Blair. “As a politician I have never sought the public eye for its own sake. I have never believed presentation should be a substitute for policy. I do not believe that politics is about celebrity, “ Brown added, taking aim at the failed rock star who raised spin cycle politics to an art form.

To be fair, Brown has more than one reason to take swipes at Blair. New Labour, the political party, is financially bankrupt. It is also beset by a certain sleaze factor. There are ongoing investigations on Blair’s attempt to fundraise by selling peerages and titles. The list of guests to Chequers, the official country house of the Prime Minster, during the Blair decade is a veritable Who’s Who. Unlike Bill Clinton, who charged folks to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom, Tony and Cherie practiced the art of the barter. They entertained at Chequers and, in return, they accepted lavish vacations underwritten by the rich and famous. The rough cut Scot will almost certainly do no such thing, no matter how short his tenure as Prime Minister.

No, nothing flashy for Gordon Brown. He has described his dream cabinet as one which resembles a committee of boring but competent bank manager types. Still, his choice of a gatekeeper is telling. Access to Brown comes through Sue Nye who not only schedules Brown and picks out his ties, but helps him shape his ideas on major issues. Nye is the wife of the former head of the BBC, which is best described as being as far from Fox News as one can get.

As for concerns that Brown will do a quick sprint back in the direction of his socialist roots, he has let it be known that he will push for certain reforms which the trade unions, backbone of Old Labour, vehemently oppose. He has further angered the left-of-center faction by pledging to keep Britain’s nuclear arsenal independent rather than give up control to the European Union. On the other hand, to assuage the left, Brown has hinted that he might be open to forming a coalition government by inviting strong participation by members of the Liberal Democrats (who are Old Labour by default). This may keep his links to the left in tact, but to win a national election against the Conservatives, Brown will have to assure middle income families in the South of England that he will not revert to Old Labour’s socialist economic policies. A no-win, no-win situation.

Nor can Brown afford to appear soft on crime and terrorism, which is why the idea of promoting a new constitution has a special place in Brown’s plans. Multiculturalism has fragmented the social fabric of the United Kingdom. New waves of immigrants are not assimilating. Thus Gordon Brown has expressed the hope to write a 21st century constitution for Britain with specific delineations of the rights and responsibilities of all citizens and spell out, in modern terms, the roles of the three branches of government. If he could pull it off, this single achievement would assure Brown’s place in history. It is also necessary since Blair allowed his chief of staff and spin doctors to run roughshod over the separation of powers, giving them the authority to leap frog over the heads of civil servants. Anyone who has ever seen a single episode of “Yes, Minister” (arguably the best sitcom ever on how the British government really works) would know that this was a significant transgression on Blair’s part.

Unfortunately for Gordon Brown, Tony Blair may put paid to this big Brown dream. The UK is one of the 27 member states of the European Union. According to sources, before he leaves office Tony Blair wants to relinquish more of the powers of Britain to Brussels. The outgoing PM has scheduled his farewell to give himself just enough time to attend both the G8 Summit and the European Council Meeting during the month of June. The first formal draft of an EU Constitution — a whopping document — 448 articles on 485 pages — came to a halt when French and Dutch voters turned it down, at which point Britain tabled taking a vote. At the upcoming European Council meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to introduce a new set of proposals which would cede more power to Brussels, but unlike the defeated EU Constitution, these proposals would not be voted on by member states. This is called “snatch and grab” politics.

Brown is described as an “Atlanticist” rather than a “Europhile,” which means that if Tony Blair gives away more of the shop to the EU, it would hamstring Brown’s power as Prime Minister.

Tory Leader David Cameron has predicted that this yawning power gap — while Blair holds on as long as possible and Brown finds his feet — will paralyze the nation and calls the whole transition period the “government of the living dead.”

A Gordian Knot is the metaphor which refers to solving an intractable problem with a bold stroke. For the British electorate, that bold stroke will come only when the ballots are counted in favor of the Tories at the next national election. “No more chalk or cheese!” could easily be the Tory battle cry.


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