Thursday, January 13, 2005

Blair and Brown: neighbours from hell

Simon Jenkins - an Oakeshottian Tory - had a quite interesting piece in the Times yesterday on the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between Blair and Brown. Jenkins often writes quite sharp stuff on the British constitution; his Accountable to None: The Tory Nationalization of Britain, published in 1996, was a trenchant critique of Thatcher and Major governments tendency to centralize power in Whitehall - and considerably more penetrating than anything I can recall coming out of the centre-left in those days. Here, he highlights the reason why this aspect of decision-making in central government is so difficult to teach these days: there simply is no effective check on executive power from HM Opposition in Parliament - any that does exist comes from within the Labour Party and specifically from No. 11:

"We can clearly forget those fuddy-duddy textbook checks on the executive: Her Majesty's Opposition, the Conservative Party and House of Commons Question Time. With Whitehall inhabited by neighbours from hell, there is no need of a balancing power. 'Friends' will do the job. The first rough draft of history lies with such blood-spattered gentlemen-at-arms as Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell on one side and Ed Balls and Sue Nye on the other. "

Jenkins thinks that part of the reason for the "personal immaturity" of these two men lies in the fact that neither of them has ever run anything. Now, this could be dismissed as the usual Tory prejudice in favour of "natural rulers" drawn from business - and Jenkins has a touch of this about him without a doubt - but he does have a broader point: the British ruling class, whether Tory or Labour, traditionally would be drawn from landed interests, business, and the trade union movement. The representation of trade unionists - as anyone who has studied the make-up of the New Labour creature will tell you - is today dismally low, with a career in law probably the most common precursor to entry into politics. This can make for able debaters who can think on their feet, avoiding the toe-curling embarrassment of someone like Bush, or before him Reagan - but Jenkins makes the point that this is of little use when things go awry - as they clearly have here:

"Political leadership in Britain now expects of its claimants the talents of a president without any relevant qualification. To lead America, or Germany, or France requires one to have been a minister, a governor or a mayor. Mr Blair and Mr Brown were none of these. They were lucky in taking power when economic and electoral good fortune masked what memoirs now reveal as a divided and shambolic administration. The past week's fiascos over tsunami relief and a leaky book reveal deplorable management by both men, poor delegation, rotten discipline and a failure to suppress personal ambition for the wider good. Nobody has a clue how to keep a secret."

The key problem, as Jenkins points out, is that - in the absence of any proper functioning administration - the absolute nature of the disagreement between these two men remains unresolved. (The disagreement is over, of course, who should have the top job).

However, his solution isn't very convincing: "If I were Mr Blair, I would do what I suggested he do after Mr Brown's challenge at the 2003 Labour Party conference. He should sack him and damn the consequences". Unconvincing because the likely consequences would be a complete meltdown in the Labour regime and I think both Blair and Brown, in their better moments, understand this perfectly well. Jenkins cites examples of other premiers who were at loggerheads with their Chancellors - but he skates over the Thatcher example: "Margaret Thatcher had an aversion to half her Cabinet". Certainly true but lacking detail; the reality was that Thatcher was ultimately destroyed because of her aversion to "half her cabinet" and more specifically, she did not survive falling out with two Chancellors, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe. Rather than following Jenkins' advice, Blair would do well to remember that it was the latter of these two former Chancellors that wielded the assassin's blade.

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