Arise the new Leader of the Opposition: The Right Honourable James Gordon Brown. Reminiscent of when William Hague stood in for David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions in 2006, thus marking a return to the front-bench after his period as Tory leader between 1997 and 2001, Gordon Brown is back in action and proposing ideas. From calling for an emergency budget to temporarily nationalising the energy sector, Brown is framing the public discussion about a country in crisis when the government seems to have abdicated any responsibility.
Brown’s public argument has led to an almost deification of him. Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting asserted the Conservative leadership contenders were ‘not fit to tie his shoelaces’, while Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Ashworth declared his ‘immense privilege’ from working for Brown. A recent Edinburgh Fringe interview with Brown on Matt Forde’s ‘Political Party’ podcast went down a storm with the audience and listeners.
Granted, it’s a great interview. And yes, in comparison to his successors as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown holds a statesman-like air of gravitas and seriousness about him. Every leader since appears to have followed the ‘hold my beer’ meme in trying to outperform their level of incompetence. However, that is no reason to hold a torch for Brown as a political figure or leader. The scale of his personal flaws and judgement when in Downing Street (both Number 10 and 11) demand that Brown continues to be held accountable and the truth be told.
Brown was an economics guru first and foremost. Shadow Chancellor under the late John Smith and Tony Blair, he served as Chancellor for a decade, delivering 11 budgets. A key pledge of his Chancellorship was to end the days of ‘boom and bust’, where great economic growth was followed by swift decline. He undoubtedly failed in this endeavour, unable to predict the 2008 financial crash (unlike Liberal Democrat Vince Cable).
Undoubtedly, the crash began thanks to sub-prime mortgages in America, but Brown did not ensure Britain was immune from the impact of personal debt and unstable banks. Rather, a report into the banking crisis found Labour’s lax regulation played a major contributing factor. While bailing out the banks was a necessity (the government today still owns 48% of NatWest Group, formerly Royal Bank of Scotland Group) , no UK-based banker went to prison for their role in the financial crash. Rather, Brown was all for increasing the power of banks, giving away monetary policy to the Bank of England as soon as he entered office. Given the Bank’s rampant failure to control inflation and increasing interest rates by the largest amount for nearly three decades, that has been a disaster.
Indeed, Brown’s guiding philosophy as Chancellor was about correcting the failures in public services seen under 18 years of Conservative government. On the surface, I have little to disagree with here. I am a Keynesian. An enabling state that invests for the future to support the most vulnerable is a morally beneficial ideal. However, any increase in spending, not least in health and education, has to come with material reforms. Simply throwing money at a system for its own sake works for nobody, least of all the taxpayer.
Labour’s reforms were not future-proof to guarantee long-term security. Granted, Labour will likely blame years of austerity, but if the programmes themselves were transformative enough, they should have withstood underfunding. Have NHS Foundation Trusts stopped the longest waiting times since records began? Not a bit of it. Were academics the silver bullet to preventing the public school dominance in British society? Quite the opposite.
Though Brown is strongly remembered for his criticisms of Tony Blair (more on that later), he was part of Blair’s government for its entirety. That meant Brown endorsed the Iraq War and Labour’s various foreign conflicts under the guise of ‘humanitarian interventionism’ . Similarly, at home, Brown had no problem with endorsing New Labour’s domestic authoritarianism, which showed a contempt for civil liberties and the presumption of innocence. When Brown was so willing to speak out in government, it seemed these most basic values in a liberal democracy was not a priority.
Whatever his merits as Chancellor, Gordon Brown was completely unsuited to the task of being Prime Minister. Since 1994, he indulged, in a manner akin to Edward Heath, in a long sulk over Tony Blair’s victory in becoming Labour leader. Despite Blair’s three election victories, Brown’s own obsession with the Labour leadership was never-ending. It was as though he felt a God-given right, an entitlement to the highest office. Read any New Labour memoir and it’s striking just how much time in government was taken up by Blair and Brown’s camps briefing against one another. Given they were supposed to be on the same side, just think what could have unfolded if only they had used that time for governing.
When Brown eventually reached Number 10, it was like a Shakespearean tragedy. Having yearned for the job for so long, Brown wasn’t up to it. Brown shares many parallels with Theresa May. Both used long periods in Opposition as time to reform their parties. Both served in one Great Office of State for the entirety of their time in government before becoming Prime Minister. Neither faced their party members in their internal leadership elections. And both, sadly for the nation, fell apart when it came to the difficult task of governing.
From an inability to make decisions to a paranoia about his opponents, allegations of volcanic eruptions to labelling citizens as ‘bigoted’, Brown’s three turbulent years as Prime Minister were no reason for celebration. It’s often forgotten just how disastrous the 2010 election was for Labour: losing nearly 100 seats, winning only 29% of the vote and the third largest Labour to Conservative swing since 1945. The event is remembered more fondly than it should be by Labour supporters, simply because David Cameron’s Conservatives were denied a majority.
Few could disagree that Gordon Brown has acted with immense dignity since leaving Downing Street. His post-premiership projects, like being the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, are admirable and of vital importance. Brown’s 2014 speech in defence of the union was moving, emotive and captivating. While his recent calls on energy prices have at least framed a debate, they have been from the luxury (as I enjoy) of commentating rather than the hard graft of government. Society may admire Gordon Brown now, but please don’t pretend he was ever an excellent politician.
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