Friday, 20 July 2007

Brown & Co: So Far So Good

Well, it is 23 days since Gordon Brown became prime minister of the UK. Maybe it is a little early to talk of reviewing his progress so far, but I am going to start the ball rolling. As readers of this blog will know, I disliked Tony Blair. I had had suspicions of him as soon as he became leader of the Labour Party in 1994 and must say my suspicions and other bad things I had not been wary of, were confirmed by his long time in office. I think that we had the Blair Party, a populist party with a mild personality cult in power. I was cautious that with the departure of Tony Blair with bitter irony to be an envoy to promote peace in the Middle East, that anything would change. However, I must say that I have been very pleasantly surprised by Gordon Brown. He is not the saviour and time will come when he slips up. However, people tend to forget that politicians are people, nothing more. The best we can hope for is that we do not suffer from their policies and if we are lucky will actually have a safer life and prosper. I know there was the emphasis on Brown having to prove himself in his 'hundred days' (which interestingly will take us to 5th November, the anniversary of the attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605), but I have to say he and importantly his ministers have leapt at the task. It really exposes how bankrupt the last days (years?) of the Blair regime had been. All of the policies the Brown government has introduced could have come in under Blair. There have not been great changes in the last few months; the only major change has been a round of heavy flooding in northern England. The flaring up of terrorism was just another burst of something which has been happening regularly in the UK for over 35 years.

What would I point to in terms of good plans from the Brown government (I think we can actually call it a Labour government again as it is embracing values Labour members of the 20th century would recognise)? The indications that the UK will not be blindly beholden to the USA was immediately refreshing. Brown has visited the Chancellor of Germany and the President of France before he has gone to see the President of the USA. In speeches though these have been wrapped around with caveats, it now appears that the relationship with the USA is no longer seen as the one to which all others must bend. As in all diplomacy it has to be give and take. The USA and UK on and off have been on close terms since 1917, but these terms became unhealthily close from the basing of US nuclear cruise missiles in the UK in 1981 and the bombing of Libya by US aircraft from bases in the UK in 1986. The UK being sucked into the war against Iraq in 2003 seemed to cap off a situation in which the UK had to comply with US wishes without question and face the consequences. I doubt there was much ground for such behaviour in the Cold War era, and there certainly is none now. This is not to say we should break with the USA, but recognise that it is both unhealthy for US politics and for the UK's welfare if we obey without question. Brown is signalling that the UK is looking for wider and more diverse connections in the world.

Another area, which to some might smack of Old Labour (and I ask what is the problem with that) as we have had Very Old Conservatism (i.e. pre-Disraeli, pre-1860s) in force since 1979, is the policy to provide more affordable housing in the UK. I am comfortably well-off and yet even I have difficulty affording somewhere to live, so the 80% of the population on the national average salary or below, are finding it harder. Everyone talks about the break up of families and by implication of society as stemming from simply human behaviour, the 'must have it all' culture, without ever considering how many families are jammed into poor housing or are financially crippled by the rent or mortgage they have to pay and live in such uncertainty because landlords/ladies and letting agencies are free to bind them to long contracts and snatch their money and then simply kick them out. Rights for tenants are improving, but there remains a long way to go until the bulk of UK people have accommodation stability and affordable housing. In 1980 the Thatcher government introduced the 'right to buy' scheme which allowed council tenants to buy the houses and flats they occupied at about 50% discount. The idea was to create a lower middle class body of property-owners who would support the Conservative Party. It is estimated that since 1980 1.5 million out of 3.1 million council properties have been sold. Councils have been barred from building any more despite the rise in the population, the increase of people living on their own (to over 6 million) and a 676% increase in the cost of houses (compared to 261% rise for commercial and industrial property). Households have been growing at 200,000 per year and house building has only been 140-160,000 per year; excess demand is estimated to have increased house prices by 60% over what they would otherwise be if it had been met. A lot of people have had an interest in pumping up house prices but now they are out of the reach of most and in turn this has had an impact on rents too. Council houses (which housed up to 60% of the population of towns in Scotland in the 1970s) were a baseline that kept down extortionate rents and house prices and importantly allowed people to get their first home when they left their parents' place. This sector is generally missing. Housing associations are supposed to fill the role but do not have the capacity or scope or money to make sufficient an impact. So, I believe Brown's decision to allow the return of council housing will benefit a large swathe of the British population and help with things such as social break-up and in turn crime reduction (people with a vested interest in their community are less likely to attack it). Blair feared that such a policy would appear to 'Old Labour', but his fear meant he did not move to policies that would actually have ameliorated the issues he professed to wish to tackle.

Another area which I think the Brown government is introducing sensible, sober (if not overly spectacular - this was a problem of Blair his whole regime was about charisma and grabbing headlines) is about changing the laws on young drivers. A third of all road deaths are of people aged under 25. If you think that the other two-thinds are made up of people from 26-100+, you can see the imbalance. The suggestions are that you cannot take your test until you are 18 (rather than 17 as at present), you would have to study to drive for a year, drivers under 25 should not be permitted to have any alcohol in their blood stream (a policy that has worked in Germany; under Blair there was almost an automatic rejection of any approach which had been adopted in another EU state on principle) and they would be banned from carrying passengers at night for the first year after passing. These policies are directed at the most hazardous form of driving which is young people (and the women are as bad as the men) showing off to their friends on the way to a night out. None of these policies are earth-shattering, but they seem to show that issues have been thought about, other examples examined and a range of policies put forward. What was stopping Blair doing any of this? How many lives could have been saved if, say, these policies had been introduced in 2001? Of course, going and killing lots of Arabs was far more important for Blair.

I trust that these three policy areas will just be some among many we can expect by November. I just hope for the sake of the UK that Brown and his team can keep it up. There is certainly a more sober tone about Brown, the show-business glamour approach of Blair and his obsession with 'spinning' any story to show him in best light, seems to have faded very, very quickly. What angers me even more than ever about the wasted years of 1997-2007 is how much could have been done, not with elaborate initiatives or with huge expense, but with measured and tested thought. I think the shine of the Blair years which remains will soon be fading. The 'what if?' of Brown preceding Blair to the premiership in 1997 (as he could have done if internal politics had played out differently) will be a bitter one for many commentators and much of the British population for years to come.

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