• Bryan Gould on Gordon Brown

    The following article was published in the NZ Listener of 14 July.

    In the ten years after Gordon Brown and Tony Blair entered the House of Commons together in 1983, Gordon was always regarded as the senior member of the duo – slightly the older, better grounded in the Labour movement, apparently with more substance than his more charming but perhaps more superficial colleague.
    Little wonder, then, that Gordon was first bemused and then angry that the Labour Party “fixers” (and principally Peter Mandelson) decided at the last moment – and just in time for the leadership election following John Smith’s untimely death and my own decision to return to New Zealand – to back Tony as the preferred leadership candidate. Gordon was persuaded to wait for his turn – something he was promised in return for not challenging Tony’s candidature.
    The result was a ten-year wait – profitably spent, it is true, in a successful term as Chancellor of the Exchequer – but a period of increasing frustration on Gordon’s part and an increasing reluctance from Tony to keep his part of the bargain. It was only when the post-Iraq opinion polls turned sour that Tony bowed to the inevitable and that Gordon had his chance.
    What will he make of it? The omens look good. The main thing going for him is that he is not Tony. Despite Blair’s extravagant gifts, as communicator and persuader, the British public has grown tired and cynical at the glibness and the endless spin. They seem ready to embrace someone with perhaps less surface but more substance. They want, at least for the moment, someone who says what he thinks and means what he says.
    Brown also has the good fortune to face in David Cameron a Tory leader who has made the Tories electable again but who looks better suited to fighting the last war – against Blair – rather than a new battle against the more solid virtues of the new Prime Minister. There is already a “Brown bounce” in the opinion polls as the British public suddenly see the dour Scot in a new light.
    This is not to say that Gordon will find that election success falls into his lap. More than anyone else, he is ineluctably and correctly linked in the public mind with the Blair government and its record. He is as much identified with the government’s failures as is Tony. He will have a difficult task in convincing people that he can free himself of the Blair legacy; nor will there be any shortage of defenders of that legacy if he succeeds.
    And the truth is that what is known of him is not without foundation. He does find it difficult to smile and to chat to people. He does demonstrate some of the characteristics of a control freak. He is at times excessively cautious and calculating. And his record is not free from blemish, including most memorably his determined support for British membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism long after its disastrous consequences were becoming apparent.
    I remain, however, optimistic about a Brown premiership. Here is someone who is a much more authentically Labour figure than his predecessor, someone whom the voters will easily recognise and therefore trust. Here is someone who has a better grasp of the fact that we would not bother with the messy business of politics if it were not for the need to reconcile competing interests and allocate scarce resources, with the consequent inevitability that some people must be disappointed – something Blair instinctively shied away from. Here is a Prime Minister who will want to use power, as opposed to simply holding on to it, and to use it for purposes that will commend themselves to voters who want a recognisably Labour government.
    If he is to make that fresh start, however, he must do some difficult things. He must draw a line under the Iraq disaster; the appointment as Foreign Secretary of the Iraq war sceptic, David Miliband, is a good start but the most effective step would be to establish an independent inquiry into the origins of the war, and set a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops. He must reaffirm the value of public service and the public sector, and not turn always to the private sector for solutions. He must stop hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, something for which his predecessor had a fatal weakness. Above all, if he is to make that essential connection with the British public and to do so without Tony Blair’s exceptional presentational skills, he must re-establish trust in the political process. He can do that best by being his own man.
    Bryan Gould
    29 June 2007

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