Gordon Brown – a very ‘little Stalin’

The fact that a 2p cut in income tax can be greeted as ‘dramatic’ shows how low public expectations of economic change have sunk.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

It has been open season on UK chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown for the cartoonists and the photo-editors, after the former head of the UK civil service denounced Brown’s ‘Stalinist ruthlessness’ in running the Treasury and dictating to other government departments. But apart from showing what Brown would look like with an ‘Uncle Joe’ moustache, can comparisons with the Soviet dictator tell us anything useful about New Labour’s prime-minister-in-waiting as he delivers his final Budget?

Of course, of course, Brown is not really like Stalin. All such comparisons between the politicians of today and the dictators of the past are essentially silly. However disappointed some on the left might be with New Labour, they cannot accuse Brown and Tony Blair of presiding over the defeat of an historic revolution. Whatever one thinks of the moral cowardice of his silent support for Blair’s wars, Brown cannot seriously be held responsible for the deaths of millions. And although Brown is known for not suffering critics, it is unlikely that once he takes over the fallen Blairites will end up in showtrials and Siberian camps or mental hospitals.

One thing Brown’s Whitehall and Stalin’s regime might be said to share is a ‘Stalinist ruthlessness’ in their bureaucratic attitude towards politics, a belief that progressive change can be forced through by government diktat and imposed targets. The state of the health service confirms that this approach remains as inefficient under the guidance of UK management consultants as it was under Stalin’s state apparatchiks.

But the targets they pursue are very different. Stalin aimed to industrialise the backward peasant economy of the Soviet Union, to transform the society by pledging to build ‘socialism in one country’. Brown’s ambitions, as revealed by his latest Budget, are rather more modest: to fiddle with the taxation and incentives system in an effort to modify our personal behaviour. His ‘revolution’ is not about driving a big economy to a higher level, but sticking higher taxes on those who drive big cars.

There is an old tradition in Britain of calling petty, officious jobsworths ‘Little Hitlers’. By the same token, if Brown is Stalinist then he is a very ‘Little Stalin’ indeed. This is not about the individual leaders concerned, the difference between the Georgian peasant communist and the Scottish Presbyterian socialist. It is about the historical difference between their political eras. If Stalin’s polices were shaped by an era of great political conflicts over the economic future, Brown’s are a product of the era of There Is No Alternative.

I have always been among the fierce critics of Stalinism and the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’ from the left. When I was editor of Living Marxism magazine, we attacked the Soviet Union on the front cover of the very first issue and then continued in much the same vein. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was transformed into a huge industrialised economy. But the ruling Soviet bureaucrats did not create a more efficient system than market capitalism. On the contrary, they used their centralised system of state control to hurl resources at their industrialisation programme in a wasteful and inefficient way that would never have been tolerated in a profit-run enterprise. Nevertheless, at the end of that process, the Soviet Union was industrialised and transformed: ‘The new industries may have been built with two or three times as much labour as would have been required in the capitalist world, but built they were.’ (1) And in the 1930s, with the capitalist world deep in depression, Stalin’s ‘economic miracle’ helped to delude many in the West and the Third World into believing that the Soviet Union offered a real alternative.

That belief persisted, albeit with diminishing support, through the Cold War years. Much of the mainstream Western left, including the British Labour Party, drew authority for its state socialist programmes from the existence of the Soviet Union. When the Stalinist system finally collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions and external pressures at the end of the 1980s, the wider left’s worldview went with it.

The end of the ‘Big Stalinist’ dreams was to usher in the era of ‘Little Stalins’. In Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum, all sides of British politics accepted that There Is No Alternative to the market economy. More than a century of political struggle between left and right, in which the production and distribution of society’s economic wealth had been the central and most fiercely contested issue, effectively came to an end. But any feelings of capitalist triumphalism were quickly dissipated. The removal of the Soviet bogeyman soon exposed a lack of confidence and dynamism within the West itself. Instead a consensus formed around the need, not for a rampant free market, but for a highly regulated and restrained market economy with a large degree of state subsidy and influence.

Since the end of the Cold War, the economy has been removed from political debate. This process of depoliticisation was formalised after the election of the New Labour government in 1997, when Brown’s first act as chancellor was to hand government control of UK interest rates over to the bean-counters at the Bank of England. Over the past decade, while Chancellor Brown has preached the accountant’s mantra of ‘prudence’, the credit-fuelled City-financed UK economy has experienced steady, moderate growth (except for the inflated house price boom) with no great financial crises or leaps in unemployment. The relative stability of the world market and the absence of industrial conflict have helped to keep the economy off the political agenda.

The changing content of the Treasury’s annual Budget reflects this shift. Once there were great debates over issues such as nationalisation and governments’ attempts to direct the economy. No longer. For years now, the policies proposed in the Budget have become increasingly concerned with what the money-men call micro- rather than macro-economics.

During the debates over the Tory government’s Budgets in the 1990s, people like me complained that political conflict over the economy had been reduced to bickering over whether or not there should be an extra few pence on or off income tax. Now the narrow differences of those days can even seem like historic clashes of principle, compared with the small-mindedness of today’s economic ‘debate’.

The fact that Brown’s headline-grabbing Budget announcement of a 2p cut in the basic rate of income tax was greeted as such a ‘shock’, a ‘dramatic move’ etc, itself illustrates how low public expectations of economic change have sunk – and how little separates the major parties’ policies. (Indeed, critics were quick to point out that even that 2p income tax cut was partly an over-inflated PR stunt, since the simultaneous abolition of the lower 10p tax rate removed much of the benefit from many lower-paid workers at a stroke.)

Indeed, New Labour is now re-politicising the Budget in a way that has far less to do with changing society’s economic direction than with moderating the behaviour of individuals. In place of the old Labour rhetoric about controlling the commanding heights of the economy, we are confronted by New Labour’s low-level efforts to alter what cars we drive or TVs we buy. Some might well see a touch of Stalinism in these petty efforts to impose a system of conformity on how we live. But instead of the Orwellian nightmare of jackboots and the thought police, we are faced with the Brownian nightmare of green taxes and ‘incentives’ to help re-educate us in the conformist dogma of ‘informed choice’.

Today’s politics is dominated by an outlook of low expectations, not only in relation to the prospects for major social or economic advance but more fundamentally in relation to what we can expect of humanity. In this respect, perhaps the most telling part of that civil servant’s attack on Brown was his description of the chancellor’s ‘contempt for mankind’. The failures of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, and of big social experiments in the West, underpin the broad loss of faith in the ability of humanity to take control of its destiny and forge a better society. Thus it is left to Little Stalins like Brown to try to micro-manage the behaviour of people they hold in contempt.

Of course, the last thing anybody needs today is nostalgia for the dark days of Stalinism. What we do need, however, is to raise our sights and think big about how society might realise the potential for change and advance. Instead we are stuck with Brown’s backward politics of behaviour modification and restraint – and worse, the loudest criticism seems to be that he is not going far enough in that direction. Which sounds about as useful as complaining to Stalin that he is not demonstrating sufficient ‘Stalinist ruthlessness’.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi had enough of the moralising politics of behaviour, which Mick Hume said was also evident in the Stern report. James Woudhuysen defended individual ecofreedom in the face of state intervention into our use of electrical goods. When Gordon Brown announced his ‘green budget’ last year, Brendan O’Neill asked ‘What’s behind the war on 4x4s?’. At the end of 2006, spiked crowned Gordon Brown Miserabilist of the Year. Or read more at: spiked issue Economy.

(1) Frank Furedi, The Soviet Union Demystified, 1986, p99

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Topics Politics


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