Monday, 14 April 2008

Browned Off

Suddenly, out of the chaotic mess that is the Brown premiership, a coherent narrative, of sorts, has appeared. He was never up to much, the theory goes. The "psychological flaws" that Alistair Campbell alluded to all those years ago (or was in Blair himself, or even perhaps Cherie?) now stand exposed for all to see. The brooding, the obsessive secretiveness, the lack of empathy, the desire to control may have been all very well at the Treasury but are disastrous in a prime minister. There's no plan, no drive, nothing that GB actually wants to do, except maintain his dominance and crush rivals. He's Stalin without the moustache, Mr Bean without the creative flair.

Matthew Parris, for example:


No, for all I care, Mr Brown can be a bean-counting, flak-ducking, procrastinating, tunnel-visioned, trainspotting monster. These are human qualities. I like human qualities. It's vacuums I despise. What is unforgivable is the empty space in Mr Brown's head where an idea ought to be. One big idea, one bold, brave, all-consuming purpose, one gripping sense of political direction, would outweigh all the carping criticisms we may have of Brown the man.


Everything was fine, according to this version of events - which is so consistent that one feels someone must be spinning it - as long as Tony Blair was around. Not only did he manage to keep Brown in his box (though perhaps he should have gone further and ditched him altogether) but he understood, as Brown does not, the desires of the electorate. He knew how to connect, he was decisive, full of plans and ideas. That these ideas tended to involve illegal wars, repressive legislation or schemes to channel large sums of money into the pockets of foreign casino-operators was ultimately less important than his reputation as a winner. If it wasn't for the small trouble of Iraq, he would still be smiling at us today, and many chastened Labour MPs in marginal seats must now wish they hadn't let him go so easily.

There are hints everywhere of nostalgia for the easy victories of the Blair years. On Labour Home, for example, Tony Hannon writes as follows:

I remember in the run up to the Iraq war, Tony Blair went into a hostile studio audience and faced slow clapping, almost farcically tough questions and an angry Sir Trevor MacDonald. Even if you disagree with a policy, you’re somewhat assured when the main protagonist of the policy is willing to go into enemy territory to defend it.

Not so with Gordon. I look at the conference Q&A where barely a question from his own Party members went satisfactorily answered. The video link is out there somewhere. Waffle and platitudes around the topics raised.

Whenever there was a crisis for Blair – Gordon was nowhere to be found and a statement came a few days after the fact. We’ve now stumbled from issue, to crisis, to non-issue for almost a year and this guy never makes his argument convincingly.


There's some truth in these arguments. People generally like a leader who cheers them up, and it's hard to listen to Brown for any length of time (say, ten seconds) without conceiving the desire to try out an exquisitely painful method of suicide, just to relieve the boredom. And Blair, despite the disaster of Iraq, retained his almost supernatural ability to charm and get out of scrapes. Of course, it can't be known how he would have played the sub-prime crisis, the collapse in the value of the pound, the humiliation of British forces in Iraq, the Olympic torch relay or any of the other thousand shocks that Brown was heir to. But he would have pulled something out the bag. He always did.

But the mere fact that Brown is depressing, and useless, and appears to have no clear message to give the country is not, in itself, a reason to miss Blair. We had a demonstration last week - in the form of the devastating judgement of the High Court in the BAE corruption case - of just what a dangerous prime minister Tony Blair was, able to disguise the most cynical realpolitik and contempt for the rule of law in the language of high principle and the national interest. Craven before the corrupt, greedy mafia godfathers of Saudi Arabia, he had no compunction in interfering in the administration of justice. Lord Justice Moses details at length the process by which Blair bullied the Director of the Serious Fraud Office and the Attorney General into colluding with a foreign despot. While formally the decision was Goldsmith's, there can be no doubt that it was actually Blair's.

A year ago, as the nation looked forward to the end of the Blair regime, the then PM's reputation had been thoroughly trashed. True, he was not as unpopular then as Gordon Brown is now. But then the global economy was not in meltdown, no British banks had collapsed, the price of bread in the supermarkets hadn't doubled in the space of a few months. The factors - the real factors - that destroyed the government's reputation had no arisen. Apart from Iraq, of course, and even that had begun to fade. Blair's unpopularity then was all his own. In retrospect, of course, his premiership seems like a golden age. But that's just the operation of the Blair luck. If he were still in power, he would be at least as unpopular as Brown, but perhaps for different reasons.

There's a strange irony about the present situation. In the most important sense, Brown thoroughly deserves the blame for the uncomfortable position in which he finds himself. Not so much because he is a useless prime minister (although he is) but because he was a useless chancellor. For more than a decade, he did silent damage to the economy, raising taxes, squandering resources, destroying the competitiveness won during the Eighties at the cost of so much pain. But Blair did nothing to prevent him. He was too busy grandstanding and moralising and strutting on the global stage to interest himself in the petty details of what was happening to the economy. If he had been as determined to reform failing institutions as his torch-bearers now claim then he would have concentrated his attention on the domestic agenda. But that would have been too much like hard work.

2 comments:

Olive said...

Much as I like Matthew Parris, I don't see the point he is trying to make. Is he really saying that a monomaniacal Gordon Brown would be preferable to the bumbling halfwit Gordon Brown we're currently saddled with?

The Heresiarch said...

Very true. And it goes to the heart of the misplaced Blair nostalgia: the notion that Blair was preferable to Brown because, in his deranged, quasi-messianic way he knew where he was going. That it's better to be led in the wrong direction than not led at all.

I'm all for incompetent government, personally. Most of the time the country would manage perfectly well without constant government activism. Think back to the Major years: nothing much happened, but in a good way. There were far fewer unnecessary and unworkable laws, for one thing. Far fewer wars, as well.