Man out of Time: Gordon Brown: Tom Bower's Gordon Brown (HarperCollins 2004) Gordon Brown's Moving Britain Forward: Selected Speeches, 1997--2006 (Bloomsbury 2006) Robert Peston's Brown's Britain (Short Books 2005)
McDermott, John, Kennedy School Review
Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on 27 June 2007. A fascinating character study, Brown is one of the true intellectual forces in contemporary politics, yet little is known of Brown outside of Britain. Committed to international development, to the Anglo-American "special relationship," and to ensuring "British values" in an increasingly interconnected world, Brown will invariably be a key player in the international arena over the next few years.
"It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine," observed P.G. Wodehouse. Gordon Brown, the former chancellor of the exchequer (the second most important position in British politics, with responsibility for economic and fiscal policy) and new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is not known for his chipper demeanor. An intensely private man, Brown nevertheless attracts an array of epithets from critics (dour, brooding, uncompromising) and allies (intellectual, loyal, farsighted) alike. Ever since he was allegedly described by Blair's former director of communications Alistair Campbell as having "psychological flaws," the study of his character has meant more than a mere portrayal of tortured introspection. Rather, it has become central to his desire to retain the premiership.
No less important is Brown's record as chancellor. At first glance his prudent stewardship of the economy has few echoes of that other famous Scotsman from Brown's small hometown of Kirkcaldy, Adam Smith. Yet Brown has attempted to balance "the invisible hand" famously described in The Wealth of Nations with the lesser known, but in Smith's opinion, equally important "helping hand" discussed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His tenure can be seen as a decade-long effort to encourage enterprise while ensuring social justice. Granting the Bank of England the power to set interest rates and cutting capital gains tax was coupled with radical welfare-to-work schemes and the introduction of a minimum wage. Self-imposed constraints, Brown argues, provided stability to an economy hitherto associated with oscillating periods of boom and bust.
But Brown has been more than just a competent economic manager. He used the power of the purse to garner unprecedented control of domestic policy. As the legend goes, this was Brown's reward from the deal made with Blair in 1994 where he agreed not to stand against his erstwhile junior colleague for the Labour leadership in exchange for broad powers in economic and social policy. This ostensible pact has provided fertile fodder for the speculative British press. Regardless of its veracity, Brown ensured his influence stretched far beyond the confines of the treasury. Inevitably, this extended writ, combined with an infamous lack of tact, raised the ire of cabinet colleagues. Given this animosity, it remains in doubt whether Brown, as prime minister, can inspire the same loyalty as the gregarious Blair.
According to Tom Bower, a chancellor "oblivious to everything other than his own truths" is unlikely to cut an emollient presence. His polemical biography ruthlessly examines the psychology and political machinations of the would-be prime minister. Brown's childhood under the aegis of his father, a Presbyterian minister, is interpreted as the incipience of a life led with religious angst. To understand an upbringing as the "son of the manse" is to understand Brown. Equipped with "an osmotic understanding of the Bible" and surrounded by the poverty widespread in postwar Scotland, Brown developed compassion for those around him. Scottish Presbyterianism with its avowal of egalitarianism and hard work laid the foundations for his political philosophy. Presbyterianism dovetailed with socialism defined Brown's years as a precocious student at Edinburgh University. His doctoral thesis on the Scottish leader of the Independent Labour Party (a radical scion of the more popular movement), James Maxton, offered a historical compliment to his nascent activism. Maxton was a quixotic socialist, who possessed all the necessary qualities except one: the ability to achieve real power. Bower argues Brown would thereafter seek to learn from his subject's mistakes. Unfortunately for Brown, Bower contests, his early reluctance to fight for a seat in Parliament indicated a "lack of courage" that would continue throughout his career. This theme would recur when deciding not to challenge Blair for the leadership in 1994 and throughout his period as the "slighted" chancellor. Unsurprisingly, Bower supports Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, in his description of Brown as a character in "a Shakespearean tragedy": a Hamlet perennially resisting the temptation to be Macbeth.
All of this is great fun, of course, and Bower's engaging romp echoes a significant minority of the public's perception of Brown. However, the author's bitterness and propensity for conjecture undermine his arguments. To claim that Brown lacks courage is unjustified. In his first year at university he lost sight in one eye and had to spend six months in a darkened hospital room to stave off blindness in the other. Nevertheless he returned to excel academically and be elected rector (a position of great symbolic importance at Scottish universities). When his first child, Jennifer, died within a week of being born, he spent the next weeks comforting a mourning family while continuing his duties as chancellor. What may deprive him of greatness, though, is not courage but audacity. When he has displayed the latter, for instance with the Bank of England, it has been an acclaimed success. To stave off the resurgent Conservative Party he will need to juggle his famed prudence with acts of boldness.
Boldness is not something Bower lacks. Bizarre choices of historical analogy (did Labour's accession to power really "resemble the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 by the Leninists"?) and unsourced quotations give the impression of a biography written with an argument decided a priori. Compounding the problem is the number of factual errors (there were two general elections in 1974, and the Scottish Nationalists won eleven seats in the second, rather than the eight Bower claims). Brown is no angel, but neither is he the monster portrayed in this book.
A more nuanced profile is provided by Robert Peston in Brown's Britain. Peston eschews psychoanalysis for an in-depth look at Brown's political philosophy and policy record. Brown disappointed many Labour Party members by promising to keep within Conservative spending plans for the first two years after winning power in 1997. Antecedent Labour chancellors had cost the party dearly by economic mismanagement of which, however unfairly, the Conservatives never failed to remind the electorate. He realized Labour's success depended on being perceived to be trustworthy stewards of the economy. Therefore prudence was to be "atonement for Labour's sins." Competence would breed confidence.
The primacy of stability also reflected Brown's personal and political ideology. Checks and balances were created by Brown for Brown. The establishment of the Monetary Policy Committee within the independent Bank of England to set interest rates, a quintet of tests to assess entry into the Eurozone (the group of countries using the euro currency), and an economic "golden rule" to balance borrowing and spending allowed the chancellor to plan strategically for the long term. Constraints today meant freedom tomorrow. Specifically, it created the conditions for Brown to make record levels of investment in public services and to create a "progressive universalist" merger of the tax and benefit systems in the second term. Clintonian welfare reforms based on tax credits and employment incentives were designed to encourage an "enterprise society" with a "helping hand" from government. Peston adroitly surveys the results of Brown's "quiet revolution": no negative growth in any quarter since 1997; unemployment down to less than one million; nearly a million children lifted out of poverty; and inflation below the Eurozone average.
Regretfully, scant recognition is given to the contribution of the former prime minister. In Great Britain PLC, Blair was chairman to Brown the CEO. Brown was the pragmatic socialist working with the markets while Blair was the media operator, "the classless breakfast television presenter." There is a grain of truth in this but Blair, as Andrew Ranwnsley and others have shown, is hard done by when portrayed as simply the style to Brown's substance. Peston also glosses over some of the shortcomings of Brown's reforms. Gross management failings concerning the introduction of the tax credit system has mitigated its effects. Despite contemporaneous warnings from his independent adviser Sir Derek Wanless, Brown's insistence on a plethora of targets in the National Health Service has undermined investment. Peston is right in praising the former chancellor for managing the money, but he fails to investigate fully what happens when it is spent. He leaves unexamined the possibility that Brown's dominance of domestic policy and emasculation of cabinet colleagues has left the government bereft of a plurality of capability.
Despite these shortcomings Peston provides sufficient evidence to demonstrate Brown's genuine intellectual prowess and real ideological distance from Blair. Whereas Blair's adoption of the Third Way is based on a crude triangulation, Brown's cooption of elements of market philosophy to promote egalitarianism is rooted in intellectual reflection. Brown's political philosophy comes closer to that of John Rawls than any other current politician. His "progressive universalism," as Peston describes it, mirrors Rawls' conception of justice. Rawls argued for the primacy of equal basic liberties and added that social and economic inequalities, when they do exist, should be arranged such that the greatest advantages accrue to the least well-off. Brown repeatedly places emphasis on the "equality of liberty" (i.e., fair quality of opportunity) and the acceptance of markets so long as they help to lift the most disadvantaged out of poverty. Unlike more doctrinaire socialists, Brown is cognizant of the trade-offs inherent in coupling equity with economic growth. It remains to be seen though whether as prime minister, Brown will be able to promote this Rawlsian framework without losing essential votes among the English middle classes.
Ironically, when speculating as to what Brown's Britain will look like, insufficient attention is paid to his own thoughts as detailed in his speeches, collected in Moving Britain Forward. Upon publication in the United Kingdom, commentators scoffed at his avowals of British values as no more than the political tactics of a Scotsman needing to win over the English middle class. In part, this is true. But political expediency is coupled with a genuine scholarliness and unique desire to reflect on what it means to be British in the twenty-first century. It reveals the best of Brown: a politician willing to think both historically and long term in order to create a rigorous intellectual and policy framework.
What, for Brown, is Britishness? In a nutshell, it is to be part of "a society in which there is liberty for all, responsibility by all and fairness to all." Throughout British history, liberty--as established at Runnymede in 1215, in the Bill of Rights in 1689 and in the Reform Bills of the nineteenth century--has been entwined with a sense of duty and fair play. According to Brown this conception of positive liberty is, in contrast with America, "a far more generous, expansive view of liberty ... focused not just on the abuse of power but on the empowerment of the individual." It gave rise to what Orwell termed the "decency" of the British people, and what Burke before him noted were "the little platoons" of civic organizations that were widespread in Britain long before de Tocqueville boarded a boat to America. Yet the decline of British power brought a lack of confidence in these values. Instead Britons were forced to choose between the twin evils of socialist central planning and unsympathetic free market Thatcherism. Brown calls for a reassertion of liberty, responsibility, and fairness in order for Britain to thrive in an increasingly globalized twenty-first century.
Another British trait is, of course, cynicism, and Brown's remarks in this sense at least have received a patriotic hearing. This would be understandable if they came from a politician with less erudition. Brown, a trained historian (who actually reads the numerous books he cites in speeches), deserves a fairer hearing. His ability to couple the nebulous with the practical grants him this. Brown implies that, as prime minister, he will reform central and local government to instill a renewed sense of citizenship, give community organizations the resources to flourish, and encourage the enterprise of the market in the National Health Service but never at the risk of two-tiered provision.
Brown depicts a country struggling to match its history and values to a rapidly changing world. Much the same can be said about the man himself. The unifying theme of these books is the sense that Brown is a politician from a bygone era, in which personality politics, if not irrelevant, came second to ideas. Egotistical, tempestuous, and--yes--dour politicians are nothing new. But Machiavelli's maxim that it is "much safer to be feared than loved" no longer holds. If the upshot of this is a barrier to politicians willing to tackle the big issues with intellectual power and a long-term strategy, then that will be a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Fortunately, the man out of time is now the man in charge.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Man out of Time: Gordon Brown: Tom Bower's Gordon Brown (HarperCollins 2004) Gordon Brown's Moving Britain Forward: Selected Speeches, 1997--2006 (Bloomsbury 2006) Robert Peston's Brown's Britain (Short Books 2005). Contributors: McDermott, John - Author. Magazine title: Kennedy School Review. Volume: 7. Publication date: Annual 2007. Page number: 129+. © 2008 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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