Goodbye to Gordon Brown and All That

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, May 6th 2010

The last act of Gordon Brown has surely arrived. A gruelling election campaign fighting on two fronts. Three years of leading a disunited, unpopular government. Thirteen years in office and a culmination of mistakes made and enemies created.

Gordon Brown is as well as being the Prime Minister for the last three years and a senior Labour politician for more than two decades, a prolific writer who has ‘written’ and ‘produced’ more than a dozen books under his name.

In the last few weeks, Brown has produced one Fabian Society pamphlet, ‘Why the Right is Wrong’ (1) and another book of collected speeches, ‘The Change We Choose: Speeches 2007-2009’ (2), which complements the previous volume he published, ‘Speeches 1997-2006’ (3).

The Fabian Society pamphlet is the latest in the series of publications to come from Brown when Labour have been in trouble in elections. The first was ‘New Scotland, New Britain’ (4), published by the Smith Institute in the run-in to the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections; the second, ‘Stronger Together: The 21st century case for Scotland and Britain’ (5), published by the Fabian Society for the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, which Labour lost to the SNP.

One can expect such electioneering publications from the Smith Institute, which has at points acted as nothing more than a Brownite clearing house and cheerleader, getting into trouble with the Charity Commission for the use of No. 11 Downing Street when Brown was Chancellor and using it for political activities (6). One expects more from the Fabian Society, who used to be a serious nursery for exploring ideas, values and policies which had a broad centre-left canvas, but which now seems, in many of its publications, and certainly in its ‘Fabian Review’, to see itself as a propaganda tool for Labour politicians and activities.

The Son of A Preacher Man

The travelogue of Gordon Brown’s writings from the 1970s and early 1980s to the present day mirrors his wider political journey: from supposed radical to being a leading advocate of a domestic and global economic order which is the antithesis of progressive politics (7). This journey is not just a personal one, but has a wider relevance and resonance to what has happened to the Labour Party over the same period.

Brown’s earlier writings, ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’ (8), ‘Scotland: The Real Divide’ (9) and ‘Maxton’ (10), can be placed in an earlier Labour tradition of senior figures who were serious about ideas and values. People such as Richard Tawney, Tony Crosland and Richard Crossman come to mind, although Brown has clearly never been near this first division of talent. More apt comparisons from Labour’s past might be Ramsay MacDonald who produced several tomes on the meaning of ILP ethical socialism, and Tony Benn pre-Diaries, who produced a series of books expounding his ideas when he was challenging the party leadership, none of which are anything but the most superficial exploration of policy.

More recent books by Brown such as ‘Courage: Eight Portraits’ (11), ‘Britain’s Everyday Heroes’ (12) and ‘Wartime Courage’ (13), have gone from talking about ideas and policies to the importance of character, personality and heroes. This is a departure from a collectivist focus to an individualist one, and one which mirrors Brown’s and New Labour’s wider transformation.

This shift in Brown’s books has seen him move from this earlier tradition of Labour senior figures engaging in debate and discussion about ideas, to an American style of books similar to US Presidential candidates, the most obvious example and debt of influence of which would be JFK’s ‘Profiles in Courage’ (14). Kennedy’s book was judged by many a worthy exploration, but it contributed to a politics and industry which has seen an essential part of the US Presidential season become the publication of the prospective candidate which emphasises their character and life story, and which plays a crucial role in their positioning and profile in the party and country.

Brown’s two most recent publications are illuminating texts. ‘Why the Right is Wrong’ claims to be a challenge to the laissez faire, unregulated market approach shaped by ‘a dogmatic hostility to government action’ (15). It is also a self-proclaimed clarion call, intellectually and philosophically for progressive politics.

The first chapter, ‘The Battle of Ideas and the Collapse of Neo-Liberalism’, conflates libertarian economics and neo-liberalism as being synonymous, an astounding claim which shows no coherent grasp of either. Neo-liberalism was never about libertarianism, but instead the reconfiguration of the state and market for prioritising marketising and corporatising the public sphere and society.

A chapter, ‘Liberty’ tackles the negative liberty of the right, but has a cursory dismissal of those concerned about our civil liberties. It is Brown claims ‘simplistic and irresponsible’ to always prioritise liberty over other values, and he writes: ‘We must be realistic. Not all good things are compatible all of the time. Precious as liberty is, it is not the only value we prize, and not the only priority for government’ (16). Then he concludes invoking his famous ‘golden thread of liberty’; so everything is still alright in the British tradition of liberty.

‘The Renewal of Trust through Constitutional Change’ is part congratulatory, part knowing things are not in a good way. ‘We have made great progress on our constitution since 1997’ (17) and then the usual list follows: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and more.

Brown comments ‘this is no time for complacency’ and sets out proposals which would he believes ‘represent a transformation of the way politics is conducted in this country’ (18), which is laughable compared to the proposals on offer: the Alternative Vote, lowering the age to vote, and transparency in how our political parties are funded.

‘Why the Right is Wrong’ is a perplexing text, the point, purpose and audience of which is a mystery. It is not as it claims an intellectual and philosophical argument, nor it a gathering of essential ‘Facts for Post-Socialists’, as the Fabian Society used to publish, bringing together key facts for election campaigning and political education. There seems to be little point to this publication other than an element of vanity publishing by Brown, and political positioning and aiding access to Labour influencers by the Fabians, thus underlining the dilution of the society’s once nobler standards.

‘The Change We Choose: Speeches 2007-2009’ appears to be a star-studded book with introductions to Brown’s speeches from Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, Shimon Peres, Kofi Annan, Alan Greenspan, along with Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz (and even Sarah Brown). All of these names are prominently carried on the back dust cover, as if the prospective reader might be tempted within by the promise of such a galaxy of stars!

The opening words come from Sen itemising the positive nature of Gordon Brown’s Premiership. These include recognising ‘the need for the global world community to get together’ in the G20, and the banal sounding revelation that we need ‘economic strength, not just at home but everywhere’, apparently invoking the work of Gleneagles in 2005 on debt relief. Finally, Sen claims that ‘Gordon Brown was rightly sceptical of the deregulation initiatives of the 1990s’ (19). This latter point stretches credulity to breaking point, given it would involve one Gordon Brown taking on and disagreeing with one Gordon Brown, Chancellor, PM and co-architect of New Labour.

With its Obamaesque title, ‘The Change We Choose’ is an unconvincing, cumbersome book attempting to create a convincing, coherent narrative out of too narrow a period and technocratic a range of speeches. This is the sort of volume which would have been conceivable from Harold Wilson at the height of his powers as Labour leader, and been just as vacuous. His first volume, ‘Speeches 1997-2006’, while being no classic, at least had a decade to draw its material from, and appeared less shaped by the mechanics of government, and more by an attempt to sketch a Brown vision for what was then the Prime Minister in waiting.

There is in and amongst the superstar endorsements – and where are Bono and Bob Geldof or have they already jumped ship? – moments of light relief. Nick Antsee introduces a speech entitled ‘Five Giants to Do Battle With’, a reference to the Beveridge Report, and yet, Brown writes of ‘the four great issues of our time’ (20). While Alan Greenspan in his fulsome introduction declares that ‘Gordon Brown was an exemplary steward of the economy of the United Kingdom for over ten years’ (21), a testimony which may look less well-judged as time passes.

What is missing or downplayed is revealing: so we have Afghanistan, but no Iraq, nothing on public sector values or public spending, and nothing explicit on Britishness, one of his favourite credos of the last decade.

There is of course, no mention of socialism or social democracy, words which have been nearly expunged from Gordon Brown’s lexicon. Apparently in certain carefully controlled circumstances, in the inner sanctums of the Labour Party, he still occasionally refers to that old music hall tradition of ‘democratic socialism’ and ‘Labour as a socialist party’. Maybe it makes it all feel worthwhile to him, and even some Labour Party members.

What then is a book like this all about? What purpose is it for given we can exclude the possibility of a late rush of floating voters dashing into Waterstone’s tearing the book off the shelf to answer the wrestling with their conscience which they are going through? What is it all for beyond the platitudes of serving, answering a calling and ‘the good society’, the generalities to which progressive politics have been reduced by thirteen years of New Labour?

Part of the answer at least from Brown’s side can be answered with recourse to his background. Brown is the ‘son of a preacher man’ instilled with the values of a ‘missionary man’ in his very being. This is a very Scottish Presbyterian story: of the importance of mission, purpose and first principles. Brown in this respect is a driven man, shaped by the experience of this culture and its values, and wherever his moral compass may have taken him far from where he intended, this outlook and perspective still visibly shapes him.

Then there is the wider Labour story. For all the invective poured on Brown’s head, his journey and trajectory mirrors the wider and deep tragedy of Labour: of a party which as it experienced electoral success on a scale undreamt of lost its way in the most fundamental sense you can imagine. Brown’s tragedy is part of all this, in a way that Blair’s journey is just not comparable; Brown being born of the Labour movement and its travails; Blair, travelling light through it without a seeming care in the world oblivious to the carnage he has caused.

Jason Cowley’s interview with Brown in this week’s ‘New Statesman’ (22) touches on this personal tragedy. Irwin Stelzer comments on Brown, ‘He believes he can use the GDP better in the people’s interest than they can on their own’.

In a remarkably astute eve of poll piece on the mood and mindset of Brown, touching on the coming together of the Brown-Mandelson act and their new found comfortableness and intimacy, Cowley underestimates this wider crisis of Labour and progressive values, of which the Brown story is but one chapter.

‘Labour is not existentially imperilled’ unlike the 1980s, he writes. This is just plain wrong and part of the problem. The Labour Party and progressive values are in deep, dangerous trouble in the UK, being part of the multiple crises which now afflict the political establishment and institutions of this country, and in part having aided and brought about those crises.

Despite all of this, a section of our centre-left intelligentsia seem still to be in complete denial about this, or more accurately in the case of Cowley, to be in denial of Labour’s role in all of this.

We need to start by breaking down this culture of denial – some of which is caused by a genuine want to see the positive actions in what Labour did in its thirteen years, some of which is shaped by a Labour chauvinism and blindness to the party’s faults. Part of all this will be acknowledging the central role in all of this of a man who started out with the best intentions, as a man of ideas and learning, and ended up supporting a version of the world upside down from how he imagined: Gordon Brown.

Yet, this is a story in which Brown is just one individual, and the wider failings, historically and contemporaneously of Labour have to be understood. It cannot be ‘Back to the Future’ after Blair and Brown finally depart with Labour playing its dutiful role in the ‘restoration’ politics the entire British ship is so eager to undertake. Instead, we need an honest assessment of where the wreck of New Labour has taken us, and the damage which has been inflicted upon all of us.

Notes

1. Gordon Brown, Why the Right is Wrong: The Progressive Case for Britain’s Future, Fabian Society 2010.

2. Gordon Brown, The Change We Choose: Speeches 2007-2009, Mainstream 2010.

3. Gordon Brown, Speeches 1997-2006, Bloomsbury 2006.

4. Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander, New Scotland, New Britain, Smith Institute 1999.

5. Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander, Stronger Together: The 21st century case for Scotland and Britain, Fabian Society 2007.

6. ‘Charity Probed over ‘Brown Links’’, BBC News, February 1st 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6321375.stm

7. For a longer, more in-depth analysis of Brown’s writings and thinking see: Gerry Hassan, ‘Don’t Mess with the Missionary Man: Brown, Moral Compasses and the Road to Britishness’, in A. Gamble and T. Wright (eds), Britishness: Perspectives on the British Question, Blackwell in association with Political Quarterly 2009, pp. 86-100.

8. Gordon Brown (ed.), The Red Paper on Scotland, Edinburgh University Student Publication Board 1975.

9. Gordon Brown and Robin Cook (eds), Scotland: The Real Divide, Mainstream 1983.

10. Gordon Brown, Maxton, Mainstream 1986.

11. Gordon Brown, Courage: Eight Portraits, Bloomsbury 2007.

12. Gordon Brown, Britain’s Everyday Heroes, Bloomsbury 2007.

13. Gordon Brown, Wartime Courage: Stories of Extraordinary Courage by Exceptional Men and Women, Mainstream 2008.

14. John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage, Harper and Bros 1956.

15. Gordon Brown, Why the Right is Wrong: The Progressive Case for Britain’s Future, Fabian Society 2010.

16. p. 38.

17. p. 69.

18. p. 69, 70.

19. Gordon Brown, The Change We Choose, p. 9.

20. p. 49.

21. p. 71.

22. Jason Cowley, ‘My life is more than simply politics’, New Statesman, May 10th 2010, pp. 10-13.