The Creator: At the Heart of Gordon Brown's Instant Popularity Is the Fact That He Is Not Tony Blair. in the First of Four Special Reports in These Pages, David Marquand Suggests the New Prime Minister Is Stealthily Re-Creating New Labour in His Own Image

By Marquand, David | New Statesman (1996), September 24, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Creator: At the Heart of Gordon Brown's Instant Popularity Is the Fact That He Is Not Tony Blair. in the First of Four Special Reports in These Pages, David Marquand Suggests the New Prime Minister Is Stealthily Re-Creating New Labour in His Own Image


Marquand, David, New Statesman (1996)


After ten years as one of the most dominant chancellors of modern times and three months as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown remains a curiously enigmatic figure. We know that he is a complex, gifted man, rooted in the democratic soil of the Scottish kirk, the Scottish Enlightenment and the Scottish Labour movement. We also know that he is the most literate prime minister since Harold Macmillan and the most intellectual since Gladstone. We suspect that his obvious loathing for celebrity culture goes hand in hand with an ingrained respect for the values of citizenship, service and professionalism which lie at the heart of the public domain that Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair systematically trashed. But we don't know what this adds up to in terms of policy and positioning, or where Brown locates himself on the increasingly fuzzy spectrum of 21st-century social democracy.

There is not much doubt about his political strategy. He is trying to construct a new version of the broad-based progressive coalition which gave Labour its crushing majorities in 1997 and 2001--and which was itself a lineal descendant of the Attlee coalition of 1945 and the Wilson coalition of 1966. That is part of the reason for his overtures to the Liberal Democrats, for his return to the norms of cabinet government, for his proclaimed wish to strengthen parliament, for his refreshing restraint over the terrorism at Glasgow Airport and for his self-possessed dignity at the press conference following his visit to George W Bush. The unspoken message has been clear: Brown may be Blair's heir in certain inescapable respects, but he is not Blair Mark II.

He knows his chief task is to win back the swathes of small "1" liberal Britain that turned against Labour in revulsion at Blair's Iraq adventure and the accompanying recourse to the politics of fear. So no more macho strutting, no more poodledom towards the United States and no more authoritarian sofa government. In place of the now discredited populist Big Tent of the early Blair years, there will be a pluralist Big Tent, based on the principle of unity in diversity.

So far, Brown's strategy has been astonishingly successful. Labour is now on course to win a fourth term, perhaps with a big majority. Of course, a lot can go wrong between now and polling day--the crisis at Northern Rock may presage broader economic trouble, with higher interest rates combining with a housing crash, a public sector pay freeze and industrial action. Some of these might be laid at Brown's door, others might not. Some might lead the electorate to desire continuity, others might not.

Furthermore, the Cameron bubble may have subsided, but it has not burst. Yet when all the caveats have been made, there is no doubt that Brown's arrival at No 10 has transformed the electoral landscape. Blair's departure has drained the system of half a decade's accumulated poison. The memory of dodgy dossiers, hubristic messianism and successive assaults on civil liberties and the rule of law no longer hangs over the Labour Party like a noxious fog. Brown's often infuriating caution during the long years of Blair's decline has paid off. He leads a united party, shorn of his predecessor's excrescences. The electorate plainly likes the look of it.

There are ironies in all this, which some of his followers may not like. Before Blair's departure his critics were apt to drink to Brown in the way that 18th-century Jacobites drank to the king over the water. Brown became the focus for disparate, confused and sometimes incompatible hopes, some of them remarkably ill-founded. He was thought to be true Labour, as opposed to Blair's new Labour, to stand for real social democracy as opposed to the insipid emptiness of the Third Way. There was truth in that, but it was far from being the whole truth. The culture that made Brown what he is, and the values he imbibed from it, undoubtedly differ from Blair's. For years, he has been haunted by what he once called the "tragic waste of vast reserves of human potential" imposed by economic deprivation and inequalities of power. …

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