10 reasons why Gordon Brown is not fit to be prime minister

Illiberal, miserly, curmudgeonly and a coward: under our new PM, things can only get bitter.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Tomorrow, Gordon Brown will succeed Tony Blair as prime minister of Britain. Here, the editor of spiked gives 10 reasons why Brown will be a dead weight around the neck of British politics.

1) He’s yesterday’s man

Brown is coasting towards his coronation as PM only because there’s no one else of substance in the Labour Party to challenge him. As far back as 1992, Brown’s ambition to become Labour leader was scoffed at by party officials who saw him as ‘John Smith Mark 2’ – an able politician, but one who lived in the shadow of the man who eventually did become party leader, John Smith. In his book The Unfinished Revolution, New Labour architect and arch-Blairite Philip Gould reveals that in 1994, when Smith died, Blair was favourite to succeed him because he ‘would create for Labour and for Britain a sense of change, of a new beginning, which Gordon could not do’. And yet 15 years later (if one week is a long time in politics, what is 15 years?), Brown has become leader of Labour and PM, on the basis of a deal he cut with Blair in a restaurant in Islington in 1994 rather than as a result of putting forward a new agenda that might have inspired his party or the nation. Brown’s ‘success’ is built on the collapse and hollowing out of the Labour Party, and the failure of a new or remotely inspiring Labour generation to break through. His prime ministership rests on the rubble of political debate and vision in contemporary Britain.

2) And he espouses yesterday’s politics

Brown clings to the politics of yesteryear as a comfort blanket to protect himself against political uncertainty today. He recently claimed that his father, a Presbyterian minister, shaped his political outlook – he was saying the same thing in 1988, when he argued that Labour should counter Thatcherism with ‘social Christianity’. In a speech on terrorism earlier this month, Brown said the stand-off between the West and Islamic extremism was similar to ‘the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s’, envisioning himself as a new Kennedy figure taking on a new ‘Evil Empire’. Of course there are benefits in looking to, and learning from, the politics of the past, in building on the gains and visions of earlier generations in order to make a better future. Yet Brown borrows liberally from the political language of the Cold War because he is struck dumb by events today. Faced with political uncertainty, Brown reaches for the old certainties of the black-and-white Cold War; lacking a vision for now, he responds to widespread disillusionment with New Labour by wrapping himself in warm and familiar-feeling old ideas.

3) He sees security as the highest aim of politics

One of Blair’s worst legacies is the security agenda – the idea that the best way to deal with terrorism is to have more intrusive snooping and less liberty. Brown is likely to go even further down this safe and sorry route. Last year, in a major speech on security, he declared that he would reorganise every arm of government around combating terrorism, in effect giving rise to a war cabinet and a war mindset in a nation that isn’t at war (except with handfuls of wannabe jihadists from the Home Counties and Leeds). Using the word ‘security’ no fewer than 61 times, Brown said it would be his top priority. Not only had his Treasury Department become a ‘department of security’, he said: so, too, had the Foreign Office and the Health Department (which apparently must spy on sick foreign people). He said terrorists might soon get hold of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, with which they will threaten ‘our very existence’, and we need new forms of censorship and ID cards to deal with their threat. Brown is every bit as willing as Blair to exploit the politics of fear; if he has his way we can look forward to a state built on fear and paranoia. Brownism means stasis and security, not ambition or change.

4) He’s an enemy of liberty

Anyone who thinks Brown will reverse New Labour’s trend for eating away at our liberties – both at our formal freedoms and our informal everyday freedom to smoke, drink and eat what we like – must have been smoking something illegal. Not content with the fact that MPs nodded through the Anti-Terror Bill in 2005, which included a provision allowing suspects to be held for 28 days (otherwise known as The End of Habeas Corpus), Brown wants to raise the detention-without-trial period to 90 days. He has also called for the strengthening of Britain’s religious hatred laws, which are a shocking assault on the hard-won right of our secular society to ridicule religious faiths and their adherents. Brown says ‘religious hatred’, which can include critical comment and even jokes, should be ‘rooted out from whatever corner it comes’. He wants to introduce biometric ID cards; he loudly supported banning the ‘glorification of terrorism’ (or what one minister referred to as ‘attacking the values of the West’). Such is his authoritarian streak that he offered Lord Stevens, former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, a cabinet-level tsar-like job on crimebusting and security-enforcing. He wants to put a copper at the heart of government, to ensure that his petty authoritarianism is enforced by truncheon from the very top down.

5) He wants to change our ‘bad behaviour’

Once upon a time – when even Gordon Brown was still in shorts – Labour’s stated aim was to take more control of the economy in order to redistribute wealth and make a fairer society. Now the party’s main aim is to shape individuals’ behaviour. With the ‘politics of behaviour’ the government has interfered in every personal issue from what we eat (five pieces of fruit or veg a day, and feed your kids healthily or the lunchbox cops will be on your back!) to whether we can smoke (not in public you can’t, whether you’re at your workplace, a pub, a hospital, a bus-stop or in some instances your own home). Brown has played a leading role in this denigration of politics. One of his first acts as chancellor of the exchequer in 1997 was to hand government control of interest rates to the Bank of England, thus further removing the big issue of the economy from political debate. And he has used his recent Budgets, not to make sweeping economic changes, but to micro-manage our behaviour: he’s punished those who drive 4x4s with heavy car duties and offered tax incentives to others to live in eco-homes and erect eco-windmills. Think of it as the ‘taxation of behaviour’, financial blackmail to make us change our ways. If Brown even found a way as a penny-pinching chancellor to hector the public about how we behave, imagine what he’ll do now that he’s PM.

6) He’s a political coward

Leaders need balls, daring, a willingness to take risks and deal with the consequences. Brown has none of these things. Over the past 10 years, he hid in Blair’s shadows, even as he became increasingly enraged by Blair’s unwillingness to hand over the prime-ministership. As Tom Bower says in his authoritative biography of Brown: ‘[There is] one critical and unresolvable conundrum, namely Brown’s lack of courage. At decisive moments throughout his career he has proved notoriously unable to brutally assert his own interests.’ Brown’s cowardice is most clear in relation to Iraq. Some (probably deluded) Brownites claim that Brown thought the war was a mistake – and yet he voted for it in parliament, twice, and never raised a critical peep about the war over the past four years. He did, however, exploit behind-the-scenes disgruntlement with the war in order to dent Blair’s reputation. Bower reports that Brown lobbied amongst friendly Labour MPs to vote against foundation hospitals because he knew ‘little pressure was needed to attract politicians disenchanted by the prime minister’s pursuit of an “illegal war”’. Do we really want a leader who failed to grasp the nettle of leadership in 1992 and 1994, and who prefers to exploit hidden political doubts rather than articulate a loud and clear political alternative?

7) He’s a New Colonialist

Has Brown ‘learned the lessons of Iraq’? That is the question on everyone’s lips – except mine. Brown may dodge taking Britain into another controversial war, but, like Blair, he has a deep-running interventionist streak; like Blair, Brown will seek out moral authority in far-off fields, in the hope that posing as a moral do-gooder in Africa or Asia or the Middle East will offset the crisis of legitimacy at home (which is so profound that he’s already talking about reverting to the political certainties of the Cold War). Brown fancies himself as ‘Mr Africa’. He even describes his aid package for Africa as a ‘Marshall Plan’, referring to America’s rebuilding of Western Europe after the Second World War for the purposes of boosting its global authority. His African vision (with a very small ‘v’) is for further ‘sustainable development’ and the promotion of ‘good governance’. As various articles on spiked have argued, sustainable development elevates the need to keep things small-scale and environmentally-friendly over meaningful development that might radically transform Africans’ lives – and good governance is often code for Western governments and institutions dictating to African leaders how they should run their affairs. The old colonialists spread old religions around the Third World; the New Colonialist Brown will spread the new religion of self-denial and self-sacrifice.

8) He’s a politician of low expectations

Brown’s belt-tightening, penny-scrimping, generally Presbyterian outlook is not only reserved for Africa. He wants to lower our expectations at home, too. Through his Budgets and political statements, Brown has shown that he fully embraces the miserabilist green outlook that says large-scale development is off the agenda and we all must expect less from life. His response to the housing crisis is to propose building 100,000 new homes (one writer estimates that we actually need five million) and to build them on old industrial sites. He wants these new homes to be ‘carbon-neutral communities’, where residents offset every kilowatt of electricity they use and every bit of air they breathe by giving something back to the environment – a recipe for a dull, dispiriting and Orwellian community if ever I heard one. His air passenger duty was an attempt to cause a hike in the price of flights and thus make cheap flyers reconsider some of their trips abroad: holidays are a luxury under Brownism, it seems. Under the cloak of green politics, Brown is likely to enforce a Blitz-style make-do-and-mend attitude amongst the apparently greedy British populous.

9) He’s a miserabilist

Last year, Brown won spiked’s hunt for the Miserabilist of the Year. In our competition to find the man, woman or organisation who did most to spread doom and gloom in 2006, Brown beat back competition from David Cameron (who called for chocolate oranges to be banned); Ken Livingstone (for being Ken Livingstone); New Labour minister Caroline Flint (for her Puritanical crusades against drinking, sex and anything else that has a whiff of pleasure about it); and various other penny-pinching, risk-hating, youth-bashing local councils, officials and politicians. He won, spiked reported, not only because he has a facial expression that makes him look like he has been ‘walloped by a dead trout’, but also because he is ‘a manager masquerading as a statesman, who is likely to run the country like a beancounter rather than a firebrand politician’. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

10) He has a weird effect on commentators’ critical faculties

Despite the myriad evidence that he is illiberal, interventionist and curmudgeonly – and despite the leading part he played in developing New Labour’s narrow and increasingly behaviour-based political agenda – some in the commentariat still believe that Brown will breathe life back into the British political scene. Others claim that he just has a personality problem, and if only he had a fashion, hair and conversational makeover then everything would be okay. This is wishful thinking in the extreme. This isn’t about personality; Brown’s problem is that his politics are dour and dull. He is now the face and voice of New Labour, representing its inherent values of austerity, interventionism and security-over-freedom better than anybody else. And yet, Brown is best known for what he is not: he became Labour leader on the basis that he is not Blair (despite sharing all of Blair’s political prejudices) and he will stand in the next General Election, possibly next year, on the basis that he is not David Cameron. That may just be enough for him to win – but shouldn’t we expect more from a leader of society than such not-the-other-bloke politics?

For an antidote to what promises to be a further deadening of debate and expectations under our new Prime Miserabilist, make sure you keep getting spiked.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Read spiked‘s analysis of the Blair years

Brendan O’Neill
What’s worse than a Blairite? A Blair-basher
As Blair prepares to exit Downing Street, spiked’s editor introduces our sober but cutting appraisal of the Blair years and what will come next.

Mick Hume
Why (almost) everything you know about ‘Tony Bliar’ is wrong
Exploding some of the myths about Blair’s legacy, which are as misjudged as his war in Iraq.

Jennie Bristow
Scarier than Thatcher the milk snatcher
From ‘fetal ASBOs’ to calorie-counting on the curriculum: the Blairites intervened in family life in ways the Tories never dreamed of.

James Heartfield
The road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions
Many of those attacking the prime minister over Iraq were cheerleaders-in-chief of his earlier military ventures.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
Empowering patients: New Labour’s unhealthiest idea?
Everyone slates Blair for Iraq while praising his health reforms. Yet his interventions in the NHS have alienated patients and degraded doctors.

Josie Appleton
Will someone, anyone, please challenge Brown?
With no debate or contest, the ‘handover’ of power from Blair to Brown is becoming an ever more princely, undemocratic affair.

Emily Hill
The wreckage of the ‘education revolution’
How the Blairites turned schools from centres of knowledge into social-engineering labs.

Munira Mirza
What now for the M-word?
Today, many slam the Blairites for enforcing divisive multiculturalism policies – but the critics’ solutions are no better.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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