Brown Out

WHY THINGS LOOK BLEAK FOR LABOUR

Gordon Brown has now been prime minister of Great Britain for two years, but it looks as if he will lose his job at the coming general election, which has to happen by next summer; current polls are pointing to a Conservative Party victory. In 2007 Brown finally realized his ambition when Tony Blair, who had led the Labour Party to three successive victories, stepped down from office, resigned his seat in Parliament, and left British politics with extraordinary rapidity.

The relationship between those two outstanding figures in their party has been an extended psychodrama likely to attract biographers and historians. Once, as young members of Parliament, they had been friends. In 1994 John Smith, the leader of the party, suddenly died. Blair and Brown were both contenders and met to discuss plans in a London restaurant, a meeting that has become the stuff of political legend, and would form the basis of an entertaining though speculative TV play. The outcome was apparently that Blair, as the younger and more attractive candidate, and a family man more likely to appeal to the voters, would have the first shot, but that he would stand down after one parliament and make way for Brown. (At that time Brown was a bachelor and was rumored to be gay, but a few years later he married and started a family of his own.)

In 1997 the Labour Party swept to power and Blair became prime minister. His aim was to detach the Labour party from its socialist baggage while keeping some of the rhetoric, and turn it into an equivalent of the U.S. Democratic Party. Brown agreed with this policy. He became chancellor of the excheq­uer, and took on powers that extended further than those of a conventional minister of finance. He was given much praise for the successful functioning of the economy, and was happy to accept it—though recent commentators, exercising hindsight, have seen Brown as responsible for free-market policies that led to the current financial crisis. He appeared before the public as strong, reliable, and taciturn, but he was also obsessive and secretive, playing his cards close to his chest and preferring the company of a few chosen cronies for advice and information. He was supposed to be Blair's second in command, but the government looked like a duumvirate in which the prime minister did not know the chancellor's economic plans until they were announced. Tony Blair went on to win a general election in 2001 and another in 2005, but he showed no signs of stepping down. From Brown's point of view Blair had reneged on an agreement, but Blair may have believed there had been no such agreement. Eventually he decided to give Brown his chance, or he may have simply wanted a change after ten years in office.

After Blair left, Brown was rapidly elected party leader and moved into 10 Downing Street as prime minister. He was initially popular as a man of solid physical presence, high intelligence, and evident gravitas, in contrast to the lively and mercurial Blair. His father was a clergyman, and Brown was frequently referred to as “a son of the manse” (though no one could discover what his actual religious views were). It helped that he was Scottish. Broadly speaking, the English regard the Irish as charming but feckless, and the Welsh as sly and verbose, but they respect a Scots accent, provided it is intelligible, as a sign of worth and reliability. (A sure way of making a career as a presenter on British TV is to be a personable Scotswoman called Kirstie—there are several.) Brown had no sooner taken office than he was faced with a terrorist attack at Glasgow airport and extensive floods devastating the countryside. He was reckoned to have dealt effectively with these crises. In the autumn of 2007, when Brown was still in his honeymoon period, Labour had a modest lead in the polls. Plans were made for a general election to establish his leadership, though no announcement was ever made. Then it was called off. British parliaments have a five-year term, but it is one of the prerogatives of the prime minister to call an election when it suits him—or, in constitutional terms, to advise the queen to call it. Like many people, I think that this needs reform, and that we should have fixed-term parliaments, though of four years rather than five. It would have been deplorable if an election for which there was no constitutional necessity had taken place purely for party advantage.

A few months later the global financial crisis struck. In Britain as in the United States, the cause seems to have been bankers behaving badly in ways that most people can't understand. Brown, who knows a lot about economics, and his chancellor Alistair Darling took short-term measures that stopped the whole system from collapsing. But then Brown seemed to lose his grip. He is more given to talking about possible steps forward than to actually taking them. And his reputation has collapsed. Unlike Blair, he has never been at ease with the media, and his attempts to appear relaxed and genial in front of the camera are embarrassing. Meanwhile the bankers are the objects of widespread public anger, and yet they continue to award themselves large bonuses and don't seem very bothered. Politicians and commentators survey the scene like gardeners after a very severe winter, looking for green shoots that are reluctant to appear. Unemployment and house repossessions are rising, with all the accompanying social distress. In the Warwickshire town where I live, shops are closing, just as they did in the 1980s, and those that are open are offering large price cuts. But restaurants are still well frequented, London theaters are attracting large audiences, and, in an interesting national trend, cinema-going is very popular. Niche products such as fine porcelain, sewing machines, and video games are selling well.

We are told to expect tough times, and I view the prospect with rational pessimism. The Conservatives are in the lead, but they are not attracting the enthusiasm that Labour did in 1997. They are, of course, looking forward to taking over, but they must wish it was at a better time, because they will need to enact harsh financial measures. One of their spokesmen has been saying that bankers' bonuses should be cut, which is what the public wants to hear. One shrewd columnist has remarked that Labour ministers tend to be in awe of financiers, whereas top Conservatives are less likely to be impressed by chaps they were at school with and have never thought much of. Assuming they get in—and my guess is that they will have only a small majority—the Conservatives, under their leader David Cameron, will be in the position Labour was in when they first took office, having very few people on their team with any experience of government. They, too, will have to learn on the job; I hope it will not be too much at our expense.

Published in the 2009-09-11 issue: 

Bernard Bergonzi is the author of A Study in Greene, among many other books of literary criticism.

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