It’s easy to write about how awful Gordon Brown was as Chancellor and Prime Minister. The terrible truths come skipping off my keyboard like playful deer: the billions added onto our budget deficit even before the crash, the lamentable performances on the world stage, the gerrymandered statistics, the tantrums, the Nokias, the McBrides and Drapers and Balls…
But, in hope of testing our magnanimity to its limits, we at ConservativeHome thought we’d mark Brown’s impending departure from Parliament with something more difficult: a post on what he got right. Our inspiration is Fareed Zakaria’s article on what George Bush got right for Newsweek in 2008, but this isn’t quite the same. Zakaria’s basic argument was that, after recasting his foreign policy in office, Bush didn’t end up as bad as most people thought. Whereas Brown probably was as bad as most people thought; it’s just that even he did some things right.
Here are three, possibly four, of them.
Blairites will scoff and swear at that subheading. Welfare reform? Effing Gordon effing blocked it for effing years when it meant effing up Tony’s premiership. And, besides, didn’t he complicate the benefits system by forcing tax credits on anyone who’d vote Labour?
There’s something in all that, yes. But any proper history of welfare reform would still set aside a chapter for Brown’s years as Prime Minister. Or perhaps it would start a little before that, in March 2007, when David Freud published his report into the Welfare to Work programme. This report’s basic recommendation was for the long-term unemployed to be supported back into work not by Jobcentres but through private and charitable sector initiatives. Along with the Centre for Social Justice’s work on the Universal Credit, published a couple of years later, it’s the urtext of the current Government’s welfare policy.
As for the Brown Government, which came to being in June 2007, they were sceptical of Freud’s report at first. Peter Hain had replaced John Hutton as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, which was a considerable downgrade so far as reforming zeal was concerned. But then something remarkable happened: Hain started sounding more and more like his predecessor. By November 2007, he was telling the papers that his concern “is what works best”, and that the private and charitable sectors “have a vital role to play”. Soon after, the Government proved it by signing some pretty Freudian contracts with workfare providers.
The appointment of James Purnell as Hain’s successor served to hasten the reforms. As I’ve written before, it was he who began righting the Thatcher-era wrong of pushing people on to Incapacity Benefit to shorten the official unemployment rolls. And he also brought Freud back to help author a White Paper on further improving the system. Sure, both men eventually split from Brown’s administration, perhaps thinking that more could have been done – but more was done than anyone would have thought possible in early 2007.
Brown’s vital interventions towards the end of the Scottish referendum campaign were surprising only in the “wow, so he’s still alive” sense. In every other way, they were classic Gordon. The question of the Union and how to strengthen it has preoccupied him for years. Even when he was Chancellor, when he didn’t speak so much about non-economic matters, he was urging people to “embrace the Union flag” and fly it in their gardens. He wanted it to be, against the British National Party, “a symbol of unity around our values”.
Some of this may have been tosh – we don’t wave flags because a politician advises us to, but do it quite naturally for sporting events and the like – but at least it was consistent tosh. When Brown became Prime Minister, one of the first things he did was to publish, with Jack Straw, a Green Paper on The Governance of Britain. This contained a lot of false and frothy promises to “initiate an inclusive process of national debate…” blah, blah, blah. But some unequivocal good did come out of it, including a loosening of the restrictions on public buildings flying the Union Jack. Who would have thought it would be Brown – not, say, Thatcher – who would have the flag fluttering from departmental rooftops all year round?
At the time, it probably didn’t help Labour that their leader’s passion was for something as vapoury as Britishness. But passion is what it was and is. You could see it in his book project with my old boss Matthew d’Ancona. And you could see it his more recent text My Scotland, Our Britain, which Allan Massie described as “mak[ing] the Unionist case better than anything else written or said in this long, drawn-out campaign.” Whether you agree with Brown’s specific policy ideas or not, his passion alone was more than most politicians had in the fight against Alex Salmond.
As with welfare reform, Brown’s policy on the euro appeared to change over time – and much for the better. Before the 1997 election, he suggested that “if the conditions were right,” Britain could sign up to the currency as early as 1999. But after 1997 he began defining those conditions in a way that counted against our membership. His famous five economic tests were, in effect, a way of turning his growing reluctance into official Government policy.
What brought about the change was both economic and political calculation. The economics came largely from Ed Balls – what Balls got right! – who was concerned, among other things, about what the European Central Bank’s emphasis on inflation ahead of growth would mean for us. The politics was, as you’d expect, a matter of screwing over Tony Blair. The then Prime Minister had wanted to make a referendum on the euro a centrepiece of his second term. Brown took delight in hampering this.
Which mattered more to Brown? The country or the rivalry? One passage in Steve Richards’ fine book on Brown suggests that, in this case, it may have been the former more than the latter, although it’s not totally unambiguous:
“Early in 2002 Tony Blair has told the International Development Secretary, Clare Short, that he would hand over to Brown if the Chancellor supported him in a ‘Yes’ campaign for the Euro. Blair knew Short was close to Brown at the time and had astutely chosen her to be the messenger. Short could hardly believe what she was hearing but nonetheless informed Brown of the possible deal. To his credit Brown dismissed it. He was not going to make a case for the euro when he believed it would be economically wrong, even if that meant he would walk into Number Ten. But Brown told Short that Blair would renege on the deal anyway if he went along with such a scheme.”
In any case, we can be grateful for Brown’s stubbornness here.
And maybe one more
I shall finish this exercise by begging your views. One thing that my intellect won’t stretch to is a firm decision about whether Brown was right to bailout the banks. Did this prevent economic catastrophe? Or was it a bigger catastrophe in itself? The final judgement is down to you.