Gordon Brown's British Speed Bumps

At the risk of sounding like actress Sharon Stone (who recently opined that the earthquake in China was cosmic retribution for its treatment of Tibet), one simply has to say that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is the poster boy for bad karma.  Whatever he does seems to cause the earth to roil and rumble beneath his feet.  

In a mid-May election to replace a dead MP, the Labor Party lost a long held Labor seat in a Tory landslide. The long knives within the Labor Party (already sharpened to a fine edge and ready to slay the bungling head of their Party) came out again. This time, they were used only to point to Brown’s continually dismal performance as Prime Minister.

No one wanted to actually stab the Labor Party leader (or see him assassinated), but the media relentlessly gossiped about secret meetings and plans to whittle down the length of Brown’s reign.  Likewise, Brown is rumored to have countered with threat. Should the Party attempt to remove him from office, he was presumably prepared to respond with a scorched earth policy.  This was made known in conjunction with the release of a trial balloon.  It was hinted that Brown might name a Deputy Prime Minister, an unidentified figure whose charisma and public appeal might buffer Brown’s hangdog persona and plummeting public approval ratings.

Most frequently named as a candidate for the Deputy PM position was David Milliband, currently serving as the Foreign Secretary. According to sources, Milliband was the man Cherie Blair favored to replace her husband, Tony, as Prime Minister. Alas, Cherie has a new autobiography out which has caused teeth to grind and howls to be sent up to heaven, so any hint that Milliband was her choice is bound to be held against him.

But back to Tibet…Proving he was incapable of doing the diplomatic side-step, on the heels of the dismal by-election results, Brown met with the Dalai Lama across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament in Lambeth Palace, the official digs of the Archbishop of Canterbury in London.  The idea was to avoid provoking the wrath of China by not welcoming the titular head of Tibet into Number Ten Downing Street.  Although they were distracted by the aftermath of that terrible and tragic earthquake, the Chinese still managed to protest about Brown and the Lama having a chat at all.

In the high irony department, word leaked out about what was said between the spiritual leader and the PM. It seems the Dalai Lama told Brown that one should not overlook the lessons that failures provide in life.  Good advice indeed for a man who has whatever one calls the opposite of “the golden touch.”

Take Brown’s actual track record in that very commodity.  In 1999, when he was serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown announced that he intended to sell off more than half of England’s gold reserves — 400 tons.  His decision was reportedly based on the observation that the price of gold had remained static for more than a decade.  Brown went ahead with the sale against the advice of officials within the Bank of England, which had successfully managed England’s gold reserves for 300 years.  The gold bullion sold — in a total of 17 auctions — for an average of $275 an ounce. This became known among gold dealers as the “Brown Bottom” of the market.  Today, gold is selling for between $900 and $1000 per ounce.  By selling the 400 tons in 1999, instead of 2008, Brown lost the country around $8 billion in profits.  At the same time, he wrecked the retirement funds for a whole generation of British workers.  

The then Chancellor Brown spent the next 18 months trying to keep the press from going public with the story of how he ignored the advice of the Bank of England. This gives new depth to the metaphor of a politician having “a tin ear.”  

Back in the present, Brown was greeted, on Tuesday May 27th, with a blockade of London roads spanning both morning and evening commute times. About 1000 angry lorrie (truck) drivers rolled their rigs into the capital city to protest rising fuel prices.  One small trucker explained that he owned five trucks that only got 6 to 8 miles per (Imperial) gallon.  Current diesel petrol prices have driven up the cost of fueling his business to £3000 ($6000) per week.  Some truckers say they can only remain in business under these conditions until the fall. This translates into the breakdown of delivery mechanisms for goods within the UK and the loss of thousands of jobs.

In response to this convoy of consternation, Brown announced that he would — first — talk with OPEC — and would also urge oil producers in the North Sea to increase production and, while he was at it, would press for increased development of nuclear power.  But experts say that additional oil from the North Sea would do little or nothing to impact petrol supplies, and the nuclear option is at least a decade away.

But it was a good ploy to distract the press from the fact that the UK Treasury’s petrol tax take has doubled in just over a year. And in a down-the-rabbit-hole-Alice moment, the Secretary of Transport went on the BBC to suggest that people should sell their inefficient and fuel guzzling cars and buy new more eco-friendly models. When pressed, he was unable to explain who would buy all those gas-guzzlers and how this sort of automotive shuffle was going to do anything at all to solve the immediate problem.  In a corollary move, Brown was forced to scrap plans to impose a “green tax” on millions of family cars.  This idea fostered a near revolt of what was left of Brown’s support, as the tax would have hit middle and lower middle classes the hardest. For a Laborite, this is the equivalent of the most unforgivable sin, along the lines of all the things George W. Bush has done to deconstruct conservatism and risk the downfall of the Republican Party.

Brown is so desperate to regain popularity, he’s now cold-calling British voters at home.  (“Oo is it Maudie?” “It’s that pest Brown again.  Do you want to tell ‘im to bugger off this time, or shall I?”)

Isn’t it curious that just as the Tories (still identified by the color blue) are resurgent in England, the Republican Party of America has acquiesced to being identified by the color red (long associated with communism). In 1984, Reagan’s re-election was reported on TV as “a sea of blue” on the American electoral map. This color shift purportedly was the handiwork of the late Peter Jennings of ABC, Canada’s socialist gift to media America.  And it stuck.  Now the only thing blue about US conservatives is their mood.