The Brown stuff

Time to stop Waiting for Gordo – Brown is likely to be even worse.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

When I was editor of the monthly magazine Living Marxism back in February 1995, we upset a lot of people on the left by running a front-page headline that described the leader of the New Labour Party, in the usual subtle fashion of the time, as ‘TONY BLEARGHH! Why Labour would be EVEN WORSE than the Tories.’

Today, of course, such abuse of Blair is commonplace. Back then, however, it was close to sacrilegious. After more than 15 years of Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, the exhausted Tories were widely despised and many were pinning all of their hopes on Blair and New Labour to introduce real change, to rescue British politics and society from the doldrums.

We argued, however, that such hopes were set to be bitterly disappointed once Blair came to power. First, because the Tories and New Labour now shared so much ground on the terrain of post-left v right politics and economics: ‘Instead of a battle between competing political visions, we are left with a technical contest to prove which would make the best bureaucratic managers of the system. Labour, said Blair in January [1995], is not offering a “revolution”, but simply a “competent alternative” to the Tories.’ And second, we said, because the main difference between the parties was that Blair’s New Labour, ‘travelling light without worrying so much about the baggage of the past’, could be ‘bolder than the [Major] government in putting forward policies of austerity and authoritarianism’, particularly in seeking to impose a ‘culture of conformity and control in society’. We concluded, long before all the Reverend Blair caricatures came into fashion, that ‘Tony Blair clearly sees himself as Sunday school teacher to a nation of naughty schoolchildren.’

Living Marxism magazine is long gone. But more than a decade later, we at spiked feel that illusion-bursting analysis has been pretty well vindicated by events. And we have a message for those now pinning their hopes on Gordon Brown to renew the Labour Party and revive the New Labour government. The likelihood is that Brown will be ‘EVEN WORSE’ than Blair.

After recent events, it is starting to dawn on quite a lot of people that Brown could be no better than Blair for New Labour’s electoral prospects. As I noted last week, the spectacle of Brown’s faceless Lilliputian allies pulling down Gulliver Blair has achieved the difficult task of making the prime minister look like a politician of high principle compared to their low conniving (see Egotism, cliques and cowardly backstabbers – it’s politics after Blair, by Mick Hume). This does not mean, of course, that Brown could not win an election, given the state of the opposition parties. But it makes it impossible to imagine him staging any Blair-style ‘new dawn’ triumph.

However, it is far more important for those still deluding themselves about ‘Brown’s Britain’ to recognise that Brown will be even worse for the future of politics more broadly – especially for the prospect of radical political change.

As New Labour stood on the same narrow strip of centre-ground terrain as its Tory predecessors, so Brown stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Blair on most big issues. Unlike New Labour in the 1990s, however, Brown is not ‘travelling light’. He is weighed down by the baggage of the past decade, and lacks the political dynamism to pursue much in the way of a new course. He has been at the heart of the New Labour project. Yet he lacks the spirit of Blair.

Brown epitomises the managerial, non-ideological style of contemporary government, through which power resides in the hands of Treasury bean-counters and accountants rather than accountable institutions. What was the first major act of his chancellorship, within days of New Labour sweeping to power in May 1997? He handed over the Treasury’s power to set UK interest rates to an unelected committee of suits at the Bank of England – a far cry from ‘seizing the commanding heights of the economy’, as Labour’s old socialists dreamt of doing. Indeed, when the Labour Party conference did vote to re-nationalise the railways, Brown was quick to brush off the suggestion. In the years that followed, Brown has often been praised by business leaders for his conservative managerial style and love affair with ‘prudence’. (Ironically, his ultra-cautious approach to risk and regulation has not necessarily been in their best interests, either.)

On contentious New Labour policies, from the Iraq war and renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent to education and welfare reform, Brown has offered Blair at worst silent acquiescence, at best open support. On the interventionist New Labour agenda around the ‘new politics of behaviour’, criticised by Frank Furedi elsewhere on spiked this week, he has uttered not a word of dissent. Indeed, these policies have been pushed through by government departments – from Health to the Home Office – over the years when Brown was extending the Treasury’s long arm into their affairs as never before. (See Save us from the politics of behaviour, by Frank Furedi.)

Brown’s supporters cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim that he has been the real power behind everything the New Labour government has achieved, and at the same time try to distance him from that government’s unpopular policies. Don’t these people listen to their own man’s speeches? Time and again, Brown has declared that his will be a New Labour government.

Take the ‘war on terror’, one of the issues on which Blair gets most stick from the left. In February this year, in a rare major speech on security, Brown spelt out his ‘alternative’ approach: to reorganise every arm of government around, er, the war on terror. He said that not only had the Treasury become ‘a department of security’, but so too had every government department from health to transport. Indeed, as Brendan O’Neill pointed out at the time, he talked about ‘security’ a mere 61 times. Brown claimed that not just Britain’s foreign policies but ‘our very existence’ is threatened by terrorism, and the ‘potential threat of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons’ in terrorist hands. To cope with that alleged threat, he proposed new measures of censorship, new ID cards, effectively a new security state. It was a demonstration of the politics of fear and repression of which Blair at his most bombastic would have been proud (see Gordon Brown’s tyranny of security, by Brendan O’Neill).

Look at the areas where Brown has sought to make his own mark, and the signs are no more encouraging. On world poverty, he has sought to use Africa as a stage on which to strike high moral postures, just as Blair has done around the globe. But the content of the policies Brown has proposed there, from ‘sustainable development’ to ‘good governance’, promise Africans little more than sustained poverty and governance by international institutions.

At home and internationally, Brown has also put himself at the forefront of repackaging politics in the language of environmentalism. As we have argued before on spiked, this is simply the language of neo-Puritanism and restraint for our times, a theme well-suited to Brown’s deep, dour Presbyterian instincts. In a big speech to UN ambassadors in April, on the need for us all to take ‘personal and social responsibility’ for reducing carbon emissions, Brown spoke about governments ‘taxing “bads” while promoting goods’. It was a stark example of how he will apply the Manichean Good v Evil worldview, which Blair is so attached to and which Brown learnt at his father’s knee, to something as petty as taxing cheap flights or telling us to turn off TV sets at night.

What makes anybody believe that this will all magically change once Brown gets into 10 Downing Street? Brown has no track record of demonstrating public political leadership or fighting for a distinctive cause. Indeed, as his biographer Tom Bower observed, whatever plans for settling old scores and making a new start Brownites might have, ‘There remains, however, one critical and unresolvable conundrum, namely Brown’s lack of courage.’ His reputation for going missing from the frontline during big political fights of the past decade has hardly been improved by the moral cowardice he has seemed to display in backing the recent anti-Blair plot while denying all knowledge of it.

Contrary to the fantasies of some on the left, Brown will not be able to ‘renew the Labour Party’. That organisation has long been reduced to an empty shell. Blair might well be accused of dressing up the in the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ of image politics. But behind his image, the labour movement wore out its old clothes some time ago. The grim prospect facing New Labour after Blair is personality politics without the person; managerial politics without the Man.

Any remaining illusions in Brown are unlikely to last long – certainly nothing like as long as Blair’s New Labour honeymoon. The result will be to deepen cynicism and encourage the drift towards ‘no-party politics’ that we have noted before (see The decline of New Labour and the rise of no-party politics, by Mick Hume). Whatever problems he might encounter at the polls are not an issue for those of us who don’t support New Labour. But if political life is not to sink lower still, we need to debate some alternative approaches now instead of Waiting for Gordo and hoping while things get worse.

As the leader of late New Labour, the best that Brown can hope for is probably to play Major to Blair’s Thatcher. Sort of ‘Vote Brown, get grey’. Exciting prospect, isn’t it?

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

Is Iraq a ‘boil that must be lanced’?, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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