• Was Gordon Brown’s Reputation Justified?

    Like so many others, I looked forward to Gordon Brown’s accession to Number Ten. Here, I thought, was the chance of breaking with the spin and superficiality of the Blair years. With Gordon, we would surely hear the authentic voice of Labour and welcome the end, even if it was not publicly acknowledged, of the New Labour project.

    Why have those expectations been so comprehensively dashed? How did we get it so wrong? Why is Gordon’s leadership proving such an unmitigated disaster?

    There is not one, but several answers to these questions. Those who saw in Gordon a mere technocrat, a bloodless (not to say desiccated!) calculating machine, may have had a point after all. Here, it seems, is a man who may live and breathe politics, but who is incapable of articulating what he feels about it. The more he talks of his “vision” the more arid it seems.

    We can now see that his many critics may have been right in condemning him for being more comfortable with figures than with people. Those long years of apprenticeship in The Treasury may have been, perhaps, an amazing stroke of luck – providing him with the closeted comfort of doing his sums while never having to confront the real blood and guts world of real politics.

    And how lucky he was in another sense. He inherited an economy that had been released from the bondage of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and which accordingly proceeded to out-perform our European competitors, saddled as they were with euro-driven centro-monetarism, by a comfortable margin. This was the era of the easy-credit property bubble. The tenant of Number 11 Downing Street needed to do no more than look and sound tough, and then sit back and garner the plaudits of those who reaped the profits – plaudits which hugely inflated an unearned reputation.

    It may be that that reputation has always been much more substantial than was ever deserved. I have recently consulted my own memoir of the period when Gordon Brown as Shadow Chancellor insisted, even more fiercely than the Tory government, that the United Kingdom should remain within the ERM, come what may. I noted at the time that “it has always been a puzzle to me that people who make mistakes of such magnitude and reveal such a total inability to understand the issues of which they are supposed to be masters nevertheless sail serenely on, unscathed by any suggestion that they might not be up to the job.”

    Gordon’s reputation as a successful Chancellor and a Prime Minister in waiting may, perhaps, always have been based on a soufflé of good fortune and complacent media who were content to go along with the myth rather than probe for the reality. And the Labour Party itself failed to meet its responsibilities as well.

    When the time came to elect a successor to Tony Blair, the Party had its one chance to satisfy itself that the Brown reputation was justified. A leadership election would have provided a contest of ideas, of vision, of sheer political nous, which might have been enough to ring alarm bells.

    It was with that goal in mind that I was prompted to stand against John Smith, another widely anointed successor to the leadership, in 1992. Unhappily, no one could be found in today’s Labour Party to undertake such a daunting but necessary task.

    So, is Gordon – and his personal qualities or lack of them – solely to blame for the debacle? Certainly not. The tragedy for Gordon is that a career that was blessed for so long by extraordinary good fortune has now seen his luck turn big-time. His undoubted strengths might continue to have won the day but for two strokes of bad luck over which he has had little control.

    The first is the bursting of the credit bubble and the consequent and threatening damage to the whole international banking sector and world economy. It could be argued that, as Chancellor for most of the relevant period, he cannot escape blame for what has happened, but – even so – there are many reputations other than his that must, in the light of what we now know, be reviewed even more savagely.

    The second is that he is not, in reality, a first-term Prime Minister. The Blair-Brown duo is so well-established in the public mind that Gordon has not had the luxury of a fresh start and fresh hopes for his government. The failures of the Blair government, and the disenchantment not only with Labour politics but with a politics as a whole, are Gordon’s failures as well. His long-time friend and rival has had the last laugh. The keys to Number Ten came enclosed in a poison chalice.

    Bryan Gould

    28 July 2008

    This article appeared in the online Guardian on 28 July

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