Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Gordon Brown: will he be crap?

As Prime Minister, as everyone seems to have assumed he will be. There's good reason to think he'll be a massive disappointment, for reasons I'll attempt to explain in my cack-handed fashion - but this has nothing to do with coming from a Blairite position.

I'm by no means blind to his advantages: for one, Brown is clearly the intellectual superior between the two - and a historian to boot, always a good sign. Moreover, Dr. Brown has been sensible enough to eschew the academic title in politics - perhaps mindful of how much a gift this is for those responsible for coining the tabloids' headlines. Were he to become PM, he would be the most intellectually heavy-weight one since - oh, God knows who. Certainly more so than Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major - to name just the ones from my lifetime.

Although much dismissed, I do also think he has a genuine interest in social justice and in this I do think there's more than a cigarette paper to put between him and Blair on this issue. Brown is genuinely more skeptical about market reforms in the public sector than Blair, who is a believer. Brown is more right on this.

And he was more right about the Euro than Blair as well.

He also opposed ID cards in Cabinet - arguing rightly that they're an expensive waste of time. One reason for preferring Brown to Blair that remains is that it's impossible to imagine him being more illiberal than Blair - plus I don't think we'd have to endure quite so much of all this low-grade management pish that Blair comes up with.

Add to this he's someone those of us from the West of Scotland immediately recognise and feel more comfortable with: the background in old Labour; paid his dues fighting the Tories and the Nationalists; morally other words, a miserable Calvinist like so many of us.

But I think it's a mistake to think he will revive the Labour Party and be a blinding success as a Prime Minister, for the following reasons:

  • The first point is the most trivial: while I might recognise him as someone I understand, the rest of the country may not. Scotland only represents around 10% of the population of the UK and the West an even smaller proportion. His appeal, in other words, is by no means universal.

  • He's a grumpy sod. This no doubt related to the above and of no fault of his own I'm sure - but it ain't good for diplomacy or for keeping the various factions in the Labour Party happy. (Or at least keeping their animus at a tolerable level, if we want to to justice to the reality.)

  • He is the intellectual architect of New Labour. Leaving aside the question of what you think about that, anyone that imagines Brown is fundamentally less pro-American or pro-market than Blair is deluding themselves and the actual reality of his position would eventually alienate the left of the Labour Party. One has to face the fact that this constituency are fundamentally unhappy with the exercise of power and it's politically pointless trying to make them happy; it's against their nature.

  • If the way that he has conducted the Exchequer is anything to go by, there is absolutely no reason to think that this government's centralising of power and its politicisation of the civil service would not continue under a Brown Premiership.

  • His political skills are too inconsistent. On occasion, he's been brilliant. Granting the Bank of England - regardless of what you think about its implications economically - was a stroke of political genius the significance of which has never, in my view, been properly acknowledged. This is the first Labour government in history never to have been derailed by a Sterling crisis. That's due in no small part to the fact that Dr. Brown knows his history. But often he has been inept. Remember the 75 pence a week dividend to pensioners? Remember how he caved-in to the fuel protesters? But above all, remember his really quite absurd behaviour in government. People look for a difference between Brown and Blair - skipping over the obvious point that what they fundamentally disagree about is who should be Prime Minister. Now, on this issue I really think Brown has been petulant and really quite pathetic. And you can be quite sure he would in reality be entirely unsympathetic to anyone behaving in the way he has in his administration.

But he'll probably be PM nonetheless. For what's the alternative? He has no equals in the Labour Party and he'll benefit from a Tory party with an on-going identity crisis. Which leaves the Liberals who like the left of the Labour Party, do not seriously aspire to hold power - which is just as well because it isn't likely to happen anytime soon.

Or if you want to become the political equivalent of the Jehovah's Witnesses, there's always the Respect coalition - or the SSP in Scotland. They'll come to power around the time you finish that novel you've been meaning to write...

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