Out of the corner of my eye yesterday I spotted someone on the rolling news. He looked vaguely familiar. It took me a minute to realise it was Gordon Brown.
Less than four years ago Gordon was Labour Leader and Prime Minister. It feels like another era.
We are really a bit rubbish as a country about working out what role our former PMs should have.
None of them get any formal status in the way a US President does, with their guaranteed title, library etc. But then they haven’t been head of state but “merely” head of government. And term limits mean most US Presidents are evicted from office by running out of elections they are allowed to fight, rather than losing an election or being ousted by their party as in the UK.
There isn’t a formula for what you do with the rest of your life if you have been PM, which used not to matter when it was an end-of-life job for geriatric aristocrats, but now that people become PM in their 40s or 50s they have decades of active life ahead of them after leaving office. It’s difficult for them to know what to do that won’t really irritate their successors.
Two of our PMs – Blair and Thatcher – we developed an almost pathological national obsession with. One section of the country and their own party has never gotten over their hero being metaphorically defenestrated. The rest of the country, and in Blair’s case a chunk of his own party, has never got over how much they hated them. There are still people who describe themselves as Blairites and Thatcherites years after the respective leaders left office. There are people too young to have been politically active while Blair or Thatcher was PM who call themselves Blairite or Thatcherite. And there are people too young to have been politically active while Blair or Thatcher was PM who define themselves by being against them. So when Blair has the temerity to hint he might make a donation to the Party he led for 13 years we get an explosion of commentary from every lowly tweeter upwards in the commentariat hierarchy, with outpourings of bile in the main, with a few balancing attempts at eulogy.
Part of the problem here was that the public and the political classes were denied their cathartic moment voting to defeat the bogeyman Blair or the bogeywoman Thatcher in a General Election because their parties ousted them first. Meanwhile the partisan Blairites and Thatcherites can claim their heroes were never properly, democratically defeated but were unfairly denied their fourth General Election wins.
For the other PMs, the ones shunted from office by the electorate, it is almost as though the aftermath of defeat is an anticlimax for the voters. They got rid of their target and now feel a little ashamed of this. This must be some kind of throwback to mediaeval injunctions against regicide. Democracy means we can remove our leaders, but we end up feeling sorry for them and a bit shabby about it. And even the most diehard Tory hater of Brown must have felt just a twinge of pathos and sympathy for Gordon when they saw those pictures of his sons leaving Downing Street with their dad for the last time on 11 May 2010. Only the blogger Guido Fawkes, who seems fuelled by some bizarre personal animus, has continued to pursue Brown even after his defeat.
Brown’s intervention yesterday in the debate about Scotland’s future was significant because he hasn’t made many. He has been very careful not to interfere in Labour’s debates about its future, not least because all the key protagonists in the top roles in the Party were his protégés in the past. His interventions have been about issues he has something really significant to contribute on, like international development or the future of the UK as a United Kingdom, and where he carries some weight. This is particularly the case in Scotland where his reputation was still intact in 2010.
As a Party we have never really had a debate about Brown and what he stood for and achieved. We turned the page very fast with the leadership election and now we are rightly focused on winning an election that is only 15 months away. In contrast we debated Blair’s legacy ad nauseam and we are still debating it now.
Part of Brown’s tragedy is that he defined himself throughout Blair’s leadership as “I am not Tony, you could have had me instead if it wasn’t for what happened at Granita, and I would be X degrees (according to the taste of the listener) nearer to Labour’s heartbeat and your views than Tony is”. This made absolute political sense in terms of getting elected Leader. And if you don’t become Leader you can’t be PM. But it meant once he got there he seemed not to have a project in the way Blair had, and understandably disappointed some of the people who had projected their own dislike of Blair and hopes for a post-Blair future into a Gordon Brown shaped vessel.
Clearly Gordon wasn’t an ideal retail politician for the TV age, which was why he didn’t turn out to be an election winner and why Blair got the job over him in the first place. The way he tickled us as party activists in all the right places in his conference speeches works if your average voter is similar in mentality to the average Labour Party Conference delegate but maths suggests they are not. Clearly he was a more than difficult guy to work with, if all the anecdotes about flying items of stationery are to be believed.
Just looking at this side of the story is a bit unfair though, and I hope history is going to be somewhat kinder.
Without having to think about it too hard, I can rattle off the following Brown legacies that we really ought to be a bit more mindful of:
- We had the longest sustained period of growth in history while he was Chancellor. Being slow to catch up with whatever the new narrative is, I still believe this was ended by sub-prime mortgages in the USA not by anything Gordon did wrong.
- He can at the least claim co-ownership of some of the most solid policy achievements of the Blair years, such as the National Minimum Wage. I suspect he would claim these happened despite opposition from elsewhere in Government.
- As Chancellor he systematically tried to redistribute wealth, and whilst economic growth meant the poor didn’t get richer at the same speed as the rich, his measures had a massive impact on lifting people out of poverty, particularly child and pensioner poverty.
- He avoided a Ramsay MacDonald style split in the Labour Party and movement by reacting to the global crash with a Keynesian spending programme rather than cuts. This was also the correct thing to do economically, hence the economy was growing when he left office in 2010 and would have continued to if the coalition hadn’t introduced austerity measures that were too fast and deep.
- The extra spending to pump-prime economic recovery meant that we built loads of new schools, hospitals and roads and brought thousands of units of social housing up to decent standards. The people who use those services or live in those homes will benefit for years to come.
- It came too late, but the appointment of Peter Mandelson as BIS Secretary meant Labour had a really serious industrial policy for its last couple of years in office, about the only time in three decades a UK government has had the right policies to promote sustainable growth based on hi-tech manufacturing rather than financial services.
- In the manner of his dignified and rapid departure as Leader, and tacit personal acceptance of blame for our defeat, Brown helped ensure we didn’t have a 1979-style blame game or open warfare between the Party grassroots and the parliamentary leadership. He enabled us to move on calmly and maturely.
The politics may have been a failure but there were considerable achievements as a statesman that we ought to honour a bit more.
I am relieved we have moved on from the era of Blair-Brown infighting.
I appreciate Gordon Brown’s discretion and his wise decision to generally keep a low profile since he left office.
But I am pleased he reminded us on Monday that he still has something significant to contribute to political life.