Monday, 2 July 2007

Brown's Golden Age?

Well, as regular readers of this blog will know, I have been waiting for the departure of Tony Blair from politics since 1994. His smug, authoritarian attitudes have made politics very unpleasant. I note that commentators from the right, notably Dan Atkinson and Larry Elliott's New Right volume, 'Fantasy Island' and from the left, are now savaging him without restraint. I may not subscribe to either view, but add my condemnation to the pile. The arrogance of the man to leave being an MP to become an envoy to a region where he has caused so many deaths is stunning even for Blair. As someone said of an IT manager at my company, 'he's a man who knows he's God'.

I was angered by David Cameron saying that the change of prime minister needs an election. He seems to forget that of the six times the prime minister has changed mid-term of parliament (1916 Liberals Asquith to Lloyd George; 1940 Conservatives Chamberlain to Churchill (though effectively a new coalition was formed); 1955 Conservatives Churchill to Eden; 1957 Eden to Macmillan; 1976 Labour Wilson to Callaghan; 1990 Conservatives Thatcher to Major) four of these have been Conservative premiers. If such a rule like that existed, heaven help us, we would have probably had both Thatcher and Blair, so alike in many ways, clinging on for another 2 years or so.

Right, that is enough pixels wasted on Blair. Let's turn to Gordon Brown. As you know, I am interested in 'what if?' history and it is curious to think what would have happened if rather than Brown backing Blair as leader of the Labour Party, the situation had been reversed and we would now see Brown stepping down after 10 years in office and Blair coming to the fore. I guess, Brown, unmarried and without children at the time of the 1997 election was seen as unsuitable in the family obsessed British society. He has picked up both along the way and all the better for him, no doubt. However, I hate to think we could never have a single or a gay prime minister in the future and that Blair has scorched the family requirements on the post.

Now, there is a lot of expectation of Brown. Like Blair he has a religious side, but it seems more restrained and he seems more able to separate state and religion in the way it should be in a modern society. For some Old Labourites, who have been clinging on through the years of a Blair party (see my earlier posting about how we have not had the Labour Party in power 1997-2007) see some hope in Brown. He might be the heir of John Smith (Labour leader 1992-4, held a similar position to Neil Kinnock as Labour leader as Brown did to Blair and was also Scottish and like Brown, looked like he could have been a bank manager), he might be the heir of more in the Labour Party's history. I doubt in 2017 I will be sitting here bemoaning the Brownite Party.

What is interesting is the clean sweep (almost) of ministers from the Blair Cabinet. Harriet Harman, the winner of the deputy leadership of the Labour Party has only become Leader of the House of Commons, there is no deputy prime minister to replace Prescott; there does not need to be. Partly that indicates the breadth of Brown's support across the party that he does not need someone from one side of it to be his deputy. I am glad to see Peter Hain and Hilary Benn (Environment) in the Cabinet, but there are some odd compilation roles, nothing of the Churchill 'overlord' or Edward Heath's 'super-ministries', more maybe reminiscent of the Department of the Enviroment, Regions and Transport that Prescott had under Blair. Hain gets Wales (though he was originally South African), Work and Pensions and Innovation, Universities & Skills (John Denham) and Defence & Scotland (Des Browne - at least he is Scottish). The Miliband brothers, (David as Foreign Secretary and Ed as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster) both being in the Cabinet seems somewhere between Victorian Cabinets with family members in them and the Kennedys. Alistair Darling as Chancellor of the Exchequer, from the days when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury he seems to have been in waiting for the top Treasury post almost as long as Brown was for the leadership. Now we have a Home Office, shorn of its prison role which goes to the new Ministry of Justice under the pretty draconian Jack Straw, it has been felt safe to leave it to a woman, Jacqui Smith and I welcome that change; she of all the newcomers has been put immediately to the test by the terrorist attacks this week (assuming they were not staged by MI5 to emphasise to Brown that he must listen to them).

The one thing that does seem to have been overlooked is Brown effectively ending the SDP's history. He has used a 19th century phrase, 'Cabinet of All Talents' and brought in Lord Lester and Lady Williams, both former members of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) which was the right-wing of the Labour Party which broke away in 1983 arguing that Labour, in the face of the Thatcher government was becoming too left-wing. It worked in the so-called Alliance with the Liberals until 1988 when the parties merged to form the Liberal Democrat Party which we have today. Some see Brown, with his appeal to actual Liberal Democrats like Lord Ashdown (who would not join the government) and Lady Neuberger (who has joined) as seeking to locate Labour in the centre of politics. However, what people forget is that the Liberal Democrats are actually to the left of the current Labour Party, certainly the Blair Party. In addition Shirley Williams and Anthony Lester respectively were part of and advised the Labour government of 1974-9, so actually despite their sojourn into the SDP which was more anti-Thatcherite than Blair, are links to Labour's past. So as not to scare the business and financial sectors, that have been pretty good to Brown he has former head of the Confederation of British Industry, Digby Jones and has set up a Department of Business & Enterprise under John Hutton. Whilst it may appear that Brown is throwing open his arms wide, interestingly, his large tent has people that you would associate with traditional Labour values. Labour was never anti-capitalist, it sought until Blair got rid of Clause 4 in 1994, supported a mixed economy, which we re-nationalisation of parts of the railway system we may be moving back to. It liked to work with enlightened business people. Brown has cleverly 'spun' Old Labour again, and repackaged its traditional views for the 21st century at a time when they are probably most needed in the face of exploitative multi-nationals and the migration of jobs and the suppression of rights and welfare.

I am too cynical to really expect much from Brown. At best we have a prime minister whose manner I can stomach a little more easily. I would love to be surprised and to have the true revolution that 1997 so falsely promised. However, ten years from now, I suspect I will be bemoaning Brown's support of US foreign policy in invading some country and his inability to rein in avaricious utility companies, much as I would have done with Blair.

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