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Right and Wrong New Labour

Gordon Brown; drawing by John Springs

Gordon Brown’s poignant departure from 10 Downing Street on the evening of May 11 brought to mind Enoch Powell’s dictum that all political lives except those cut off prematurely end in failure. “Only those who have held the office of prime minister can understand the full weight of its responsibilities and its great capacity for good,” Brown said outside the cramped Georgian row house he had occupied for almost three years. “I have been privileged to learn much about the very best in human nature and a fair amount too about its frailties, including my own.” The note of self-deprecation represented a rare glimpse of the private Brown, as did the parading before the cameras of his two young sons, John (six) and Fraser (three), whom, since succeeding Tony Blair in June 2007, he had kept out of the public eye.

Behind Brown’s image as a dour technocrat lurks a complex, volatile, almost Shakespearian figure. A political activist since his days at Edinburgh University, he spent more than thirty years climbing to the top of Westminster’s greasy pole, only to slither down it in agonizingly short order. After a short honeymoon period in 2007, he had to endure slumping poll ratings, constant gossip about his possible replacement, and even questions about his sanity.

Brown has a famously bad temper, which, as the British journalist Andrew Rawnsley revealed in a book published in March,1 he was apt to direct at his Downing Street staff. Suggestions that Brown might be losing it were nothing new. In 1998, during one of his early feuds with Blair, somebody in the Blair camp—widely believed to be Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spokesman—told a reporter that Brown was “psychologically flawed.” Through the years, his enemies in the party, many of whom appear to have served as sources for Rawnsley, kept up a whispering campaign about his mental state. In the spring of 2007, when Blair was preparing to resign as prime minister and let Brown take over, Frank Field, a veteran Labour MP, went to Downing Street and pleaded with him to stay. “You can’t go yet,” Field reportedly said. “You can’t let Mrs. Rochester out of the attic.” According to Rawnsley’s account, Blair roared with laughter.

That was the right attitude. Brown isn’t a madman: he is a passionate, brooding Scot, who is aware of his own shortcomings. Touring a college in his constituency a couple of days after resigning, he said: “I was actually thinking of coming in today and applying for the course on communication skills.” One on one, Brown can be gracious and warm, displaying a passion for poetry and history. After graduating in the early 1970s, he wrote a doctoral thesis on the early history of the Scottish Labour Party, taught politics at Glasgow College of Technology, and did a stint in television journalism. Shortly after he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, I encountered him at a cocktail party hosted by Tina Brown, the former editor of The New Yorker. When I told him I was writing for the magazine about economics and politics, a wistful look came over his face. That sounded like his ideal job, he said.

Looking back, it is easy to say that Brown wasn’t cut out for the very highest rungs of politics, but that isn’t wholly accurate. Together with Blair, he formed one of the most successful partnerships in the history of British politics. The “New Labour” project they launched in the early 1990s conquered the party and then the country. In public, Blair was the senior figure; privately, they regarded each other as equals, and not without reason. Blair was the front man; Brown was the strategist and theoretician. As chancellor from 1997 to 2007, he oversaw a period of economic stability and prosperity without parallel in recent British history, establishing himself as an international figure. On becoming prime minister in 2007, he dealt adroitly with terrorist attacks, floods, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and the collapse of Northern Rock bank. For several months, opinion polls showed him to be very popular.

Three things brought Brown down: the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and subsequent Great Recession, which made a mockery of his claim to have abolished the boom–bust cycle that had plagued the British economy for decades; the House of Commons expenses scandal, which undermined public support for politicians of all parties, but particularly incumbents; and his own cautious nature, which prevented him from calling a snap election in the fall of 2007. Rather than seeking an electoral mandate when his no-nonsense attitude still presented a refreshing change from Blair—“Not flash, just Gordon” was the advertising slogan his handlers came up with—he waited until the last possible moment.

During the final week of the campaign, he finally found his voice as the defender of public services and tax increases on bankers. “As you fight for fairness, you will always find in me a friend, a partner and a brother,” he told one cheering audience. Labour ended up doing a bit better than expected, gaining 29 percent of the vote and holding on to most of its traditional strongholds in northern England, Scotland, and Wales. It even won some marginal seats in the Midlands and south that it had been widely expected to lose, such as Edgbaston, Oxford East, Luton South, and Barking. Evidently, the electorate remained suspicious of David Cameron’s airbrushed Tories, giving them no more than 36 percent of the vote and forcing them to seek the support of the Liberal Democrats, who got a disappointing 23 percent.

Some commentators, on the left and the right, now dismiss Blair and Brown as flim-flam merchants—media-savvy purveyors of Thatcherism-Lite. That isn’t fair. New Labour not only rescued old Labour from two decades of failure; it redefined the parameters under which all three major British parties operate. David Cameron understands this. Back in 2005, shortly after taking over as leader of the Conservatives, he told a group of newspaper executives that he was “the heir to Blair.” Five years on, there was little in the Conservatives’ election platform that deviated from the tenets of New Labour. Mrs. Thatcher famously opined that there was no such thing as society, just self-seeking individuals; Cameron adopted the term “Big Society” as his campaign slogan and promised to protect the National Health Service from any budget cuts. After being tagged as the “nasty party” for more than a decade, it was the Conservatives’ endorsement of a more communitarian vision that made them electable.

The first precept of New Labour was an acceptance that state socialism had failed and that the market economy was here to stay. To make this explicit, in 1994–1995 Blair and Brown insisted on changing the old “Clause Four” in the Labour Party constitution, which had committed the party to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” By the early 1990s, Labour’s support of public ownership was largely sentimental: few of its supporters really believed that the government should renationalize British Telecom or British Petroleum, which Mrs. Thatcher had privatized. But rewriting Clause Four signaled to the British public that New Labour really was new. Blair and Brown openly courted business leaders. Peter Mandelson, the third member of the New Labour triumvirate, told an American audience that the party was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”

Job two was demonstrating that Labour could manage the economy. Following the unhappy experiences of the Wilson and Callaghan regimes in the 1960s and 1970s, many people still associated the party with profligacy, inflation, currency crises, and industrial unrest. Brown, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was the ideal man to reestablish Labour’s financial credentials. Before the 1997 election, he made a two-year commitment to the Conservative government’s existing budget targets, fending off demands for a rapid boost in spending on education, the National Health Service, and pensions. Immediately after the election, Brown made the Bank of England independent, handing to it the responsibility for setting interest rates that had previously resided in the Treasury.

In the City of London and on Wall Street, Brown’s twin self-denying ordinances earned him instant credibility. Rather than selling off sterling, which they had done under Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s, international investors poured money into the British currency, causing it to appreciate sharply. Nonetheless, in 1998, when global markets went into a panic following the near collapse of the giant US hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management, many old-time Labour MPs feared the worst. “They were saying, ‘Oh no, another Labour economic crisis,’” a senior Labour adviser recalled for me a year later. The markets quickly calmed down, though, and the British economy continued to expand.

By 2001, when the Labour government put itself up for reelection, it had replaced the struggling Tories as the political representative of modern economic methods. “Labour’s economic record has been very satisfactory,” the nonpartisan National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR)noted in 2005.

Inflation has been low and stable and output growth has also been stable…. By contrast with earlier periods, the public finances have been reasonably well controlled and our current position is better than that in both France and in the United States in this respect.2

But New Labour wasn’t merely a cheerleader for market forces, low inflation, and fiscal prudence. In addition to reconciling the party (and the country) to some basic elements of Mrs. Thatcher’s legacy, Blair and Brown introduced genuinely progressive measures. In their first term, they abolished the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, devolved power to Scotland and Wales in response to popular demands, introduced a Freedom of Information Act, and incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. In a country that lacks a written constitution, these were epochal changes. New Labour was the first British government to include openly gay cabinet ministers, and it abolished the ban on gays serving in the military. The 2004 Civil Partnership Act, while stopping short of legalizing gay marriage, bestowed upon same-sex unions all the legal benefits of marriage.

There are some stains on New Labour’s human rights record, notably in its treatment of terrorism suspects. Following September 11, British intelligence operatives were reportedly complicit in the US torture of al-Qaeda suspects in Afghanistan and elsewhere.3 In a series of terrorism bills, the Blair and Brown governments repeatedly tried to increase the period that terrorism suspects in the UK can be detained without trial. Following a defeat for the government in the House of Lords in October 2008, the limit was kept at twenty-eight days.

Brown’s commitment to orthodox finance also had a progressive rationale. “To buy you the room to do the right thing on social policy and other areas, you have to maintain a reputation for stability and competence,” one of his top aides explained to me in 1999. “Creating a credible policy framework gives you more flexibility. This is a five or ten year project.” From 1999 onward, the Labour government sharply increased spending on the National Health Service, education, and welfare payments to the old and sick. If you walk around a typical British city today, you will encounter numerous new schools, hospitals, and day care centers—all of them government-run. The NHS has 89,000 more nurses and 44,000 more doctors than it did in 1997, and waiting lists to see specialists have been greatly shortened. Every British three- and four- year-old is entitled to fifteen hours of free day care each week, and more young British adults than ever before are attending university. Largely as a result of higher government benefits, poverty among the young and the elderly has fallen sharply since 1997. On the official measure that includes housing costs, the overall rate of poverty fell from 25.3 percent in 1996–1997 to 22.5 percent in 2007–2008. Homelessness fell to a twenty-year low, according to official figures, and, perhaps surprisingly, it continued to fall during the recession of 2008–2009.4

  1. 2

    See Ray Barrell et al., “Labour’s Economic Performance: A Commentary,” National Institute of Economic and Social Research, April 30, 2005.

  2. 3

    See Ian Cobain, “The Truth about Torture,” The Guardian, July 8, 2009.

  3. 4

    See Communities and Local Governments, “Statutory Homelessness: Households Accepted by Local Auithorities as Owed a Main Homelessness Duty 1991/92–2008/09, by Government Office Region,” Table 621, available at www.communities.gov.uk.

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