Labour’s Journey from Socialism to Social Democracy:
A Case Study of Gordon Brown’s Political Thought
Chapter in Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas, Edinburgh University Press 2004
Gordon Brown has been a significant UK Labour politician for twenty years. For at least thirty years, from his election as MP for Dunfermline East in 1983, he has made a major contribution to Scottish Labour for at least thirty years. This chapter addresses the evolution of Brown’s political thought, and examines his understanding of socialism and social democracy. It also looks at his thinking on economic and social policy, and devolution and constitutional change, and uses these to map out some of the key issues about the development of Labour over the period, the creation of New Labour, and the contribution of Scottish Labour to the wider British Labour movement. It is, of course, a ‘work in progress’, given that Brown is still, very much an active politician at the height of his powers.
Gordon Brown: The Man and Politician
Gordon Brown was born in 1951 in Giffnock on the southside of Glasgow and moved to Kirkcaldy at the age of three where his father was a Church of Scotland minister. Growing up in an environment where politics were often discussed, Brown had a political conscience from an early age, and in 1963 campaigned against Alex Douglas Home in the Perth and Kinross by-election. As a school child he won a newspaper competition in the ‘Scottish Daily Express’ writing on Britain in 2000:
A new generation is being born. By 2000, Scotland can, for the first time in history, have found her feet as a society which has bridged the gaps between rich and poor, young and old, intellectual and labourer. (Routledge, 1998, p. 36)
This combination of Kirk, small-town Kirkcaldy and Labour was natural for Brown according to one commentator, ‘Gordon Brown is a born member of a ruling elite. In the community into which he was born, his father was a member of the social and elite and the Labour movement represented the political class.’ (Brivati, 2002, p. 238)
Brown joined the Scottish Labour Party in 1969 and began to make a reputation for himself as a national figure at an early age, winning election to the Scottish Labour Executive in 1976 at the tender age of 25. Henry Drucker, an academic at Edinburgh University at the time, reflects that the effect of Brown on the atrophied culture of Labour was not exactly positive, ‘All the older people hated him. Those over 50, old Labour, just couldn’t stand him. He was too fast for them, too clever, too popular, too good with the press. But he was the future.’ (Routledge, p. 71) He was intensely disliked by the Labour right who saw him as an over-enthusiastic and ambitious Labour politician too impatient to get things done, and not sufficiently respectful of his elders. However, he was also not trusted by the left, as he did not uncritically embrace the then emerging programmatic certainties of the Bennite left; he was not even at any point a member of CND, whereas Tony Blair was. Brown was an old-fashioned Tribunite left-winger in the tradition of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.
Brown’s commitment to Labour was underlined in the turbulent devolution decade of the 1970s when Jim Sillars set up the breakaway Scottish Labour Party. Drucker comments that Brown was a possible target for the fledgling new party, ‘Gordon was the key figure when Sillars set up the SLP. The person he most wanted to join was Brown. He knew if he could get Brown he could get the entire younger generation in Scotland.’ (Routledge, pp. 74-5) Sillars disagrees, ‘I don’t think that it is in his nature in any event to take that kind of gamble. He had a fairly set course for the top.’ (Routledge, p. 75)
Brown remained in Labour and became Chair of Scottish Labour’s Devolution Committee and campaign in the 1979 referendum. The party was badly split and Brown, young and eager was taking on a poisoned chalice. Alf Young, then Research Officer of the party, ‘kind of knew’ what was coming, ‘The campaign was left to the enthusiasts like Gordon Brown. It meant a hell of a lot of work devolving on a few shoulders. It was pitiful how much real effort was put into delivering the goods.’ (Routledge, p. 81)
Brown took a risk in the 1979 referendum and was part of a significant reverse for those campaigning for a Scottish Assembly, but it helped contribute to Brown’s status as a national figure. Another important moment, although not public, was his very definitive and personally brave break with the Bennite left. Labour at this point had just been rent asunder by the 1981 Benn-Healey Deputy Leadership contest, and the Bennites were out for revenge after Healey’s narrow victory. At a meeting of the Scottish Labour Executive with Michael Foot in November 1981, the Bennites, led by George Galloway as chair, criticised Foot for excluding Benn from the Shadow Cabinet, and Denis Healey for not supporting party policy on unilateral nuclear disarmament. Brown disagreed with the Bennites and according to a memorandum of the meeting said:
We needed to win the support of the voters. Anything which prevents this and which puts the relationship between the party and the trade unions in jeopardy is not only needless but harmful. (Allison, 1995, p. 245)
Brown outlined that what Labour required was a Draft Manifesto which both left and right could sign up to and then ‘we had to go and sell it in the country and start a moral crusade backed by the vast majority of party members.’ (Allison, p. 245) This was complete heresy to Bennite orthodoxy circa 1981: in acknowledging the realities of the external world and voters, when the Bennites were obsessed with the internal concerns of the party, and as importantly, acknowledging the need to bring left and right together. To openly accept that the right had a place in Labour’s coalition in 1981 was an unusual and brave thing for a left-winger to say.
Brown had aligned himself with the evolving ‘soft-left’ in the party which was beginning to challenge the dogmas of the Bennites, and which would after 1983 coalesce around Neil Kinnock as leader (Seyd, 1987). Elected as MP for Dunfermline East in the 1983 election, Brown immediately joined the Tribune Group and supported Kinnock for leader and deputy (so avoiding as a left-winger endorsing Roy Hattersley as deputy). In his Commons maiden speech in July 1983 he set out the human cost to his constituents of Thatcherism: with 4,000 ‘officially’ unemployed and 6,000 more out of work:
This is all because the government’s philosophy is that the rich must get rich by way of tax cuts and that the poor must become poorer to ensure true prosperity. (Hansard, 27th July 1983, cols. 1226-44)
Afterwards one Tory MP congratulated Brown on his ‘tour de force’, while the then government minister, Rhodes Boyson, later called it ‘the most effective speech’ in the debate (Boyson, 1995, p. 186) Later the same year, Brown and Blair drew the attention of Tory minister Alan Clark, who facing them in the Commons thought they were ‘two bright boys … bobbing up all over the place, asking impossible, spastic, questions of detail …’ (Clark, 1993, pp. 53-4) Brown was clearly making his mark.
Gordon Brown: The Thinker
The Red Years: Chairman Brown
For the last thirty years, Gordon Brown has been a prolific writer contributing on a wide range of public debates about Labour and socialist politics (1). His first significant venture was as editor of the famous ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’, published in 1975 that brought together twenty-nine contributors in a New Left analysis of contemporary Scotland. Originally planned as a Scottish contribution to critiquing the Heath government, it was overtaken by events in the form of the rise of the SNP in the two 1974 elections, and had two essays added at a late stage from a SNP perspective.
Brown in his introduction attempted to bring together in a convincing credo the return to a class politics under Heath, industrial unrest and the Scottish dimension. This was a bold intent, and if Brown tried to invoke the radical rhetoric of the age, a more measured, reformist politics clearly sat with them: ‘a socialist society must be created’, wrote Brown ‘within the womb of existing society’ forming ‘a coherent strategy with rhythm and modality to each reform to cancel the logic of capitalism’, while he warned ‘socialists must neither place their faith in an Armageddon of capitalist collapse nor in nationalisation alone.’ (Brown, 1975, p. 18)
Throughout the essay, Brown name checks in eager manner, the New Left icons of the age: Friere, Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks’, E. P. Thompson, the Institute for Workers’ Control and many others. More tellingly he ends with a clarion-call of Labour movement heroes, ‘Scotland’s socialist pioneers’: Hardie, Smillie, Maxton, Maclean, Gallacher and Wheatley – with two of the six Communist, rather than Labour politicians. It is also worth noting that all the New Left and Labour politicians were men (as indeed was ‘The Red Paper’ itself with no room in 28 essays for feminist analysis or gender politics (2)).
Brown is revealing on the challenge of the SNP and demand for devolution that was dividing Scottish Labour with it entering the February 1974 election formally opposed to. His aim was an ambitious one:
What this Red Paper … seeks to do is to transcend that false and sterile antithesis which has been manufactured between the nationalism of the SNP and the anti-nationalism of the Unionist parties, by concentrating on the fundamental realities of inequality and irresponsible social control, of private power and an inadequate democracy. For when the question of freedom for Scotland is raised, we must ask: freedom for whom? From what? For what? (Brown, 1975, p. 8)
His politics were a very different kind of unionism to old-fashioned Labour or Tory unionism, or the ‘new’ unionism he was to invoke twenty years later:
Scottish socialists cannot support a strategy for independence which postpones the question of meeting urgent social and economic needs until the day after independence, but nor can they give unconditional support to maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom and all that entails – without any guarantee of radical social change. (Brown, 1975, pp. 9-10)
‘The Red Paper’ did not have any significant influence on the wider Labour movement, but it was an audacious attempt to influence ideas, and one unusual in a party and culture traditionally suspicious of intellectuals and theorists.
After the 1979 devolution debacle, Brown co-wrote with Henry Drucker ‘The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution’ which reviewed Scottish politics in the last century, the development of the Scottish Office and demand for home rule, assessed the previous decade and attempted to draw lessons for the future. Drucker and Brown argued that there could be no return to the flaws of the previous Scotland Act and any future legislation would have to address:
• There was no need for 71 Scottish seats at Westminster post-devolution, and this could be cut as Kilbrandon suggested to 57;
• Proportional Representation would reduce fears of an SNP majority in an Assembly;
• Some form of taxation power could be devolved to challenge the centralism of the Treasury;
• The ‘in and out’ principle should be accepted where Scottish MPs did not vote on English and Welsh domestic matters. (Drucker and Brown, 1980, pp. 126-7)
They concluded that devolution in the 1970s in relation to Scotland and Wales was ad hoc with little grounding in political principle, leaving them open to the charge of opportunism:
Devolution must be taken out of the relatively restricted confines of Scotland and Wales and seen as part of the attempt to make British government more acceptable to the British people. (Drucker and Brown, 1980, p. 129)
The following year, Brown finally submitted his PhD, ‘The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland 1918-1929’ to Edinburgh University. This 545 page study looked at the politics of five elections in Scotland and the inter-relationship between the rise of Scottish Labour electorally and the failure of socialism to establish itself. Brown contented that the establishment of Labour as an alternative party of government was linked to its increasing lack of radicalism and the marginalisation of socialist ideas (3). According to Brown: ‘By 1929 the differences between Labour and Conservative parties may have appeared to the elector to be less matters of fundamental dispute than quantitative differences over how far economic and social reform should go.’ (Brown, 1981, p. 3)
‘Labour was the home rule party of the twenties’ asserted Brown (1981, p. 521), but it began to down play its commitment because it ‘wanted to be Scottish and British at the same time’ and ‘the fact that the sense of Scottish separateness was never sufficiently strong to force Labour into a more decisive stand.’ (1981, p. 527) Brown concluded: ‘It was not so much that Labour betrayed Scotland or vacillated on the Scottish issue: popular demand for home rule was secondary to the demand for action on unemployment, the poor law and other social and economic questions.’ (1981, pp. 527-8) And he drew a wider lesson from this:
No theorist attempted in sufficient depth to reconcile the conflicting aspirations for home rule and a British socialist advance. In particular, no one was able to show how capturing power in Britain – and legislating for minimum levels of welfare, for example – could be combined with a policy of devolution for Scotland. (1981, p. 527)
1983 and All That: The Road Back Begins
Brown was elected a MP in the Labour electoral disaster of 1983, and shortly afterwards published ‘Scotland: The Real Divide’ with Robin Cook, which is seen as the origin of their bitter rift to this day. In his introduction, Brown began to acknowledge the very changed political environment from the one eight years previous in ‘The Red Paper’ and the need for revisionism: ‘making the case for social justice is not the same as solving the problem of poverty. If life is more complex than it seems to the ideologists of the New Right, changing circumstances force the left, to reassess its social strategy.’ (Brown, 1983, p. 20) This meant that the left was going to have to face difficult choices:
The era of automatic growth is not only over but unlikely to return in the near future. New principles for social security in a low-growth economy are badly needed. The first prerequisite for eradicating poverty is the redistribution of income and wealth from rich to poor. (1983, p. 20)
The Brown of 1983 is very different from 1975. There is not one mention of socialism in the 1983 essay, whereas the 1975 one was littered with references. More importantly, the 1983 Brown was grounded in an awareness of the left’s weakness, the ascendancy of the right, and Labour’s popular decline. He was prepared to acknowledge that ‘the New Right have consistently won the argument that further moves towards equality are absurd … It is time for the left to argue the case for equality.’ (1983, p. 20-21)
In 1986, following three years of work, Brown published his biography of James Maxton, Labour MP for Glasgow Bridgeton 1922-46 and leader of the ILP. He had access to private letters and correspondence, and according to Paul Routledge:
As a result, the book reads like the diary of a spiritual and political journey, as though Brown is torn between heart-felt admiration for the most charismatic socialist of his generation, and intellectual frustration with Maxton’s compelling – but ultimately self-defeating integrity. (Routledge, pp. 134-5)
Brown takes two major lessons from Maxton’s life – one negative and one positive – his political failure and his understanding of socialism. He commented on Maxton and Wheatley, ‘Their failure, the failure of the ILP and the Labour Party, foreshadowed the failure of a whole generation of British politicians to solve the problems of unemployment and poverty.’ (Brown, 1986, p. 21) However, Maxton’s dream of identifying ‘the third alternative’ (1986, p. 192) between Bolshevism and MacDonald’s timid reformism had longer-term consequences. His political philosophy was summarised:
Cold, bureaucratic, centralised state socialism held no attractions for him. For Maxton the only test of socialist progress was in the improvement of the individual and thus the community. Greater educational opportunities would not only free exceptional people to realise their exceptional talents but allow common people to make the most of their common humanity, and ordinary people to realise their extraordinary potentials. The social equality he supported was not for the sake of equality but for the sake of liberty. (1986, p. 315)
Thatcher won a third term in 1987 despite Labour’s attempts to modernise under Neil Kinnock. Following the election, Brown stood for the Shadow Cabinet for the first time and was elected, finishing joint 11th with 88 votes, being rewarded with the post Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The next year, after deputising for John Smith, recuperating from a heart attack, he enhanced his reputation savaging Nigel Lawson; in the 1988 elections he came first and won 155 votes (4).
The following year, Brown published ‘Where There is Greed’, his critique of Thatcherism and prognosis for how Britain could reverse its long-term economic decline. Brown was now attempting to challenge the free market dogma of the right by reinventing government, ‘Our competitors … recognise the purposeful role government can play as catalyst …’ (1989, p. 10) This meant shifting towards the Western European model of capitalism: ‘Most of all they recognised that investment in education and training, and indeed in the personal well-being of their workforces, is more vital than ever to economic success.’ (1989, p. 10) To Brown, ‘Efficiency and fairness depend on each other’ (1989, p. 10), words that were to become a mantra under New Labour. This was part of the emerging new credo under Neil Kinnock’s leadership and the Policy Review process whereby the party was dumping many old shibboleths and embracing mainstream European social democracy. Brown was happy to be part of this:
In this way a new supply side socialism for Britain is in the making. Its main themes are investment in skills and science, with teamwork, collective effort and the involvement of the workforce vital to a successful economy. (1989, p. 10)
It would only be a small shift from this to the ‘Britain plc’ of New Labour in power.
In 1992 Labour suffered a fourth election defeat which was a profound and unpleasant surprise for the party. John Smith emerged immediately as favourite to be leader, with Brown not prepared to stand against his friend for the post. The deputy leadership proved a harbinger of what was to come. Tony Blair urged Gordon Brown to stand, but Brown ruled himself out as he felt two Scots could not lead the party, and Blair felt it was too early for him to stand as the moderniser’s candidate. Brown’s failure to stand shifted the dynamic between Brown and Blair, so that in two years, Blair was determined not to miss his chance (Rentoul, 2001, pp. 178-81).
Smith’s leadership was a frustrating period for the modernisers. Brown and Blair felt Smith too uncritically supported old Labour notions and gave sustenance to the ‘one more heave’ school. They found a receptive audience in the election of Bill Clinton as President as a New Democrat in 1992, and went out to visit Clinton’s team in January 1993 to learn lessons for Labour, winning criticism from John Prescott and Claire Short about the Clintonisation of Labour.
Labour’s Lost Leader: The Death of John Smith
John Smith’s death in May 1994 was a traumatic shock to the party, and to Gordon Brown, who had worked closely with him for nearly a decade. With journalist James Naughtie, Brown produced a set of essays in memory of Smith – ‘John Smith: Life and Soul of the Party’. Brown’s contribution was an essay, ‘John Smith’s Socialism: His Writings and Speeches’ in which he offered the following view of Smith:
… the more he progressed in his political life the more he felt his actions closely bound up with his Christian beliefs – the desire to help others, to strive for a better and more just society, to seek to improve people’s lives and opportunities through the power of the community.’ (Brown, 1994b, p. 67)
Despite the essay’s title, Brown offers no definition of Smith’s socialism, but does paint a vivid picture of the man and his beliefs, ‘It was when John talked of social justice, fairness, greater equality, that his words burned with passion.’ (1994b, p. 62) No hint is given of the impatience Brown and others felt at Smith’s slow approach to change in his period as leader, nor his silence on Labour malpractice in his own Monklands backyard which had become a major political controversy.
‘Values, Visions and Voices’, an anthology of British socialism, came out the following year, with fellow Labour MP and prolific author Tony Wright. The opening words of the introduction by Brown and Wright locate the purpose of the book in the contemporary debate of the Labour Party and discussions on revising Clause Four:
This book celebrates the socialist tradition in Britain. It seeks to show that fundamental socialist values endure and continue to inspire, which is why they should be clearly reflected in both the Labour Party constitution and Labour Party policy. (1995, p. 18)
‘All socialists’, they argued ‘must be both radicals and permanent revisionists, constantly exploring how their enduring values can find fresh resonances and application.’ (1995, p. 19) Given the intent to use the radical voices of the past to illustrate timeless values and the need to update these in a modern setting, the anthology was a narrow one, drawing from mainstream socialist voices, and omitting all kinds of difficult perspectives from areas such as feminism and other key social movements.
Brown in Government
Preparing for Power
Tony Blair became leader in July 1994 after John Smith’s death in a period that has been incessantly dissected by New Labour Kremlinologists, keen to find out what really happened between Blair and Brown in the infamous meal at the Granita restaurant on May 31st 1994. The existence or not of a ‘secret pact’ by which Brown supported Blair now in return for Blair standing down in the future, has been incessantly picked over (Rentoul, 2001, pp. 222-43; Routledge, 1998, pp. 189-210). Brown commented later to Paul Routledge about the manoeuvring after Smith’s death, ‘I was never part of the London scene’ (1998, p. 205) – a reference to the influence of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. What is not disputed is that the two men agreed in a briefing note the agenda and shape of the next Labour Government which said:
In his Wales and Luton speeches, Gordon has spelled out the fairness agenda – social justice, employment opportunities and skills – which he believes should be the centrepiece of Labour’s programme and Tony is in full agreement with this and that the party’s economic and social policies should be further developed on this basis. (The Guardian, 6th June 2003)
This important historic document in the creation of New Labour turned up nine years after the event has the words after Tony, ‘is in full agreement with this’ scored out and inserted in Gordon’s handwriting, ‘has guaranteed this will be pursued.’ This fairness agenda allowed Brown to see economic and social policy as under his tutelage. In ‘Fair is Efficient’, published one week before John Smith’s death, Brown outlines this agenda:
We must work hard at our own welfare system to ensure that it provides pathways out of unemployment and poverty rather than trapping people in persistent dependency … acting as a trampoline rather than as a safety net. (Brown, 1994a, p. 22)
One month after Blair’s election as leader and with the broad priorities of Labour in office agreed, Brown returned to the fairness theme:
Fairness will be the theme, indeed the agenda of a Tony Blair administration. What people want in this country is a restoration of a sense of fair play and fair dealing. It’s something that has gone missing. (Routledge, 1998, p. 212)
In an IPPR collection, “Reinventing the Left’ published to give impetus to a New Labour agenda, Brown contributed ‘The Politics of Potential’ addressing the theme that socialism was enabling individuals to realise their potential and his priorities for a fairness agenda:
• Tackling entrenched interests and unjust power and privilege which hold people back;
• An enabling state offering new pathways out of poverty: ‘The welfare state should not just be a safety net but a springboard’;
• A new constitutional settlement between individuals, communities and the state: ‘to reinvent government we must first reconstruct the very idea of community’;
• A new economic egalitarianism which accepts that people’s potential and their labour is the driving force of the modern economy. (Brown, 1994c, pp. 114)
Brown was clear this was as inspiring a vision as any offered by the early socialist pioneers:
My vision of a fair Britain means not just taking on entrenched interests that hold people back, and pursuing a modern social policy that offers pathways out of poverty, but a new economic policy – a new economic egalitarianism … (1994c, p. 122)
In the second John Smith Memorial Lecture in 1996 Brown posed that New Labour’s idea of equality was more radical than Tony Crosland’s:
Because this vision is grounded in a broader view of the diversity of human potential than a single type of academic intelligence, and because it recurs continuously throughout life, this view of equality of opportunity is not just stronger but more suited to the 1990s than that discussed by Anthony Crosland in his ‘Future of Socialism’, and by Professor Rawls in his ‘Theory of Justice’. (Brown, 1996, p. 2)
‘Equality of opportunity’, according to Brown ‘should not be a one-off, pass-fail, life-defining event but a continuing opportunity for everyone to have the chance to realise their potential to the full.’ (1996, p. 2) In the Anthony Crosland Memorial Lecture in 1997 he made the distinction with Old Labour even more explicit:
We cannot meet the challenge of creating both an educated economy and a just and more cohesive society without taking the idea of equality of opportunity seriously. Not hankering after an unrealisable equality of outcomes, as old Labour was accused of doing, advancing the wrong kind of equality, when the challenge is to make equality of opportunity real. (Brown, 1997a)
Thus, this was not a politics of retreat or dilution: ‘We reject equality of outcome not because it is too radical, but because it is neither desirable nor feasible.’ (1997a; also see 1999a) Neither desirable or feasible to raise the higher rate of tax from Nigel Lawson’s 40 per cent or increase Tory spending plans for the first two years of Labour in office.
Dear Prudence: Gordon Brown as Chancellor
Brown in office proved an ingenious and imaginative, if over-active, Chancellor, who presided over the fruition of his fairness agenda with the New Deal, ambition to eradicate child poverty, support for the working poor through the Working Families Tax Credit, Children’s Tax Credit and increases in child benefit (Pym and Kochan, 1998). There was also a sense of mission and purpose to Brown, with his speeches filled with talk of ‘making work pay’ and rebuilding work around a ‘revived work ethic’; there was a morally authoritarian strand to New Labour which in Brown spilled over to a puritan sense of self-discipline (The Guardian, 16th June 1997). ‘The best form of welfare is work’ (Brown, 1999b, p. 52) wrote Brown, and his views are shaped by a Protestant work ethic, based on a belief in the goodness and salvation of work. There is a dullness and monotony to this world that seems without colour or song, and which does not recognise that there is more to life, let along social democracy than work.
He combined all this with endless talk of an ‘end to boom and bust’ and ‘prudence with a purpose’ which allowed him in July 2000 to unleash the floodgates of a Comprehensive Spending Review raising public spending by £68 billion over three years (Keegan, 2003). Despite all this, many Labour members felt uneasy with aspects of Brown’s politics: his centralism in the Treasury via Public Sector Agreements, the diminution of Cabinet and Department responsibilities, his wider ‘command and control’ style, and the extent of PFI/PPP agreements across the public sector.
While doing all this, Brown still had the time to contribute to Scottish Labour’s campaign for the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections, penning with Douglas Alexander, ‘New Scotland, New Britain’. This laid out the case for a new unionism, acknowledging that the old unionism based on empire and deference had gone for good. Instead, a new unionism should be based on such values as the NHS, national insurance and using public spending to pool and share resources. In an analysis far removed from that of the SNP in ‘The Red Paper’, Brown and Alexander did accurately identify that a Scottish Parliament changed the contours of Scottish politics from one defined by an anti-Tory ethos to one which was more anti-Nationalist:
As long as Devolution was denied the SNP were able to conflate two distinct propositions – the majority wish for Devolution with the minority wish for separatism. (Brown and Alexander, 1999, p. 39)
Brown was seeking to do nothing less than redefine the idea of Britishness:
I see Britain as being the first country in the world that can be a multicultural, multi-ethnic and multinational state. America, at its best, is a multicultural and multi-ethnic society, but America does not have nationalities within identifiable political units in the way that Britain does. We have a chance to forge a unique pluralist democracy where diversity becomes a source of strength. (quoted in Richards, 1999)
Brown knew that a new idea of Britain was needed, and that the old progressive models would no longer do: the old social democratic state of Attlee centralism was discredited, while the old Labour devolution model of the 1970s was an ad hoc reaction to events. What Brown and others wanted was a ‘New Labour Nation’ which attempted to refind ‘a progressive British narrative’. (Aughey, 2001, p. 95)
A year later, Scottish Labour was hit by another tragedy when Donald Dewar, then First Minister, died in office, in October 2000. His funeral was a moving and fitting tribute to a man who had given his life to public service, and Brown’s contribution was an apt one, informed by the feel of the manse he had grown up with as well as the Labour movement. Underlining the importance of public service, Brown commented:
So when people say: ‘What was special about Donald was decency’, they tell you far less than half the story. What was special about Donald as a politician, was that consistently, and tirelessly, he pursued the logic of his decency and worked for a just and more equal society. (Brown, 2000, p. 40)
Dewar’s legacy was one that Brown could identify with: a belief in social justice and a fair society, and the championing of a Scottish Parliament as a means to an end, not an end itself. ‘Donald’s achievement’, commented Brown ‘is much more than a Parliament. Much more than the sum of his social reforms. It is that he ennobled the very idea of service and by his pursuit of a just society, he gave moral purpose to our public life.’ (2000, p. 41)
Brown’s relationship with Scottish Labour has always been a sensitive one, particularly since the deaths of John Smith and Donald Dewar. He is perceived and acts differently in Scotland. Faced with a more traditional Labour audience, Brown emphasises the common values and shared history that the party has. In return, Brown feels, as the most prominent UK Labour politician in Scotland since the death of Smith, that he can act as an old-style fixer which he would not dare do in the rest of the UK – in a way similar to Blair’s actions over Ken Livingstone and Rhodri Morgan. Labour Party members have alleged that Brown has influenced party candidate selections and was involved in anointing Alex Rowley as Labour General Secretary. He also, it is alleged, played a key role in the Scottish Labour leadership elections of 2000 – trying to aid the succession of Henry McLeish without an election, and in 2001 – supporting Wendy Alexander in her abortive campaign for the leadership against Jack McConnell, who subsequently became leader and First Minister. Whatever the rights and wrongs of such cases, what is important to note is that the reach of Brown into the Scottish party did have clear limits – McLeish did face a contest in 2000, and McConnell did become First Minister in 2001.
Brown saw one of his main missions in office as modernising Labour’s sense of itself by protecting its traditional values, while engaging in pro-enterprise, pro-business ways of progressing them. This caused controversy in a number of areas: PFI/PPP and concerns over a two-tier workforce, and anxieties over the London Underground, which while accepting ‘the moral limits of markets’, went too far in terms of introducing private capital and competition into the public sector for most Labour members (Brown, 2003c, p. 5) Brown attempted to assuage anxieties by presenting his New Labour message to Labour audiences in a way that emphasised their common bond. In his first speech to Labour conference as Chancellor, Brown invoked the heroes of Labour’s past to justify the present:
It was because a century ago Keir Hardie looked at the world as it was and saw what a new world could be that he broke with the old order, set politics on a new, modern path and founded the Labour Party. It was because Aneurin Bevan looked at the old world of disease and deprivation, and saw what a new world could be, that he broke with the private healthcare of the past and established a National Health Service that still serves us today. And so now for our time, let the message go out. We govern and we seek to serve as a new generation. (Brown, 1997b)
At the 2002 Labour conference Brown articulated in semi-religious language and imagery the motivation of those who work in the public sector:
For them public service is a calling not just a career, far more about service than about self-interest. If we ever lose that ethic of public service, then we lose apart of what is unique about Britain that could never be replaced. (Brown, 2002)
This was the more usual Brown approach, but he was also capable of selling a difficult message to a hostile audience. His address to the 2003 TUC conference – at the height of the Blair government’s difficulties post-Iraq – was a difficult one for Brown – which did not go down well with delegates:
… there can be no return to inflationary pay rises, no return to loss making subsidies that prevent the best long term decisions for Britain, no resort to legislation from Europe or elsewhere that would risk jobs, no retreat from a pro-enterprise, pro-industry agenda and no retreat from demanding efficiency and value for money as well as equity as we renew and reform each of our public services. (Brown, 2003a)
At the same time, in typical Brown style – he listed all the economic achievements and public sector new jobs in the manner that Matthew Parris once called ‘an animated shopping list’. First, came the economic achievements:
• Britain now has the lowest long term unemployment since 1976;
• The lowest female unemployment since 1975;
• The lowest male unemployment since 1974;
• More lone parents in employment than at any time in our history;
• Where there used to be 350,000 young people long tem unemployed there are now just 5,000;
• Now lower unemployment than Germany, France, America and Japan; and
• More people in work in Britain today than at any time in the history of our country. (Brown, 2003a)
And then, with only a brief pause to remind delegates of the spectre of the Tories, 18 years and Michael Howard (the last Tory Home Secretary), he listed the growth in public sector jobs:
• 50,000 more nurses;
• 10,000 more doctors and consultants;
• 25,000 more teachers;
• 88,000 more teaching assistants;
• 7,000 more policemen and women. (Brown, 2003a)
This Brownite mantra is interesting on a number of levels because it appears in so many speeches to Labour audiences. The first part, appears triumphalist, selling the success story of Britain in a way similar to Thatcherism at its height just before it imploded, but mixing it with a Labour chauvinism and self-satisfaction. The second element seems to be a politics without vision and values, reduced to ‘schools and hospitals’ as Labour ran its 2001 UK election campaign on, rather than the aspirations and hopes contained within them. Brown in these speeches appears trapped in a prison of his own creating: of New Labour’s agenda which acknowledged the realities of Thatcher’s legacy and globalisation, but which has bequeathed a party which is unsure what it stands for beyond managerialism, targets and assessments.
A History of the Future: Brown in the Post-Blair Era
The Odd Couple: Blair and Brown and the Project
Gordon Brown has been the most successful Chancellor in Labour’s history, able to banish memories of Labour Governments and economic crises which had destroyed the party’s plans in 1931, 1967 and 1976. He was ‘the most important and influential Chancellor since David Lloyd George’ (Brivati, 2002, p. 232) and ‘the outstanding Labour figure of his generation’. (p. 237)
The dominant dynamic of New Labour in government has been the Blair-Brown relationship: seen by some as Blair as President to Brown as Prime Minister, to others, a Blair-Brown government of cohabitation or ‘dual monarchy’. The analogy of a ‘political marriage’ has been used to describe the various stages of their relationship – the intimate early years when they were ‘the young pretenders’ under Kinnock and Smith, the defining point of ‘the pact’ and creation of New Labour, and now, a more formulaic and distanced relationship. The two men have very different styles:
He [Blair] revels in his difference. In politics he is an outsider who has found his way in, and who seems determined not to be constrained within the usual boundaries. Brown, by contrast, has spent his life on the inside and is the politician who only steps out in his own terms. (Naughtie, 2001, p. 266)
Both Blair and Brown have been significantly shaped as people and politicians by their Christian beliefs, and were from an early age influenced by the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray. He wrote extensively from a Christian socialist perspective of the importance of the community to individual worth, and of issues such as responsibilities and obligations being as important as rights. Blair was introduced to his writings at Oxford, while Brown’s father, John, was hugely influenced by him (Rentoul, 2001, pp. 41-3; Routledge, 1998, p. 19). From this shared source, the two men have developed very different types of Christian socialism, Blair being denigrated as a ‘trendy vicar’ always trying to appear young and hip to the point of near-ridicule, whereas there has always been something more rooted and old-fashioned in Brown; the former a very English type of Christianity, the latter, a very Scottish version (Craig, 2003, pp. 181-95).
Blair and Brown have been perceptively compared to a previous generation of Labour moderates – Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland. Jenkins was the younger and the less Labour-orientated of the two; Crosland was the intellectual giant of the two and author of the revisionists’ bible, ‘The Future of Socialism’. Jenkins career went from strength to strength as he occupied all the great offices of state (Chancellor, Home Secretary); Crosland belatedly became Education Secretary and briefly before his death, Foreign Secretary (Radice, 2002, pp. 330-31). An ‘Evening Standard’ piece which originally made this comparison drew attention to Jenkins and Crosland’s friendship being torn apart by jealousy and predicted the same fate for Blair and Brown. It has not happened yet. Jim Naughtie says of Roy Jenkins relationship with Blair, ‘Now and again when Jenkins and Blair meet, the Prime Minister gives a smile and says: ‘Tell me the Crosland story again.’’ (Naughtie, p. 317)
Understanding New Labour: Atlanticism and Labourism
Brown and Blair’s views are revealing in two key areas: the United States and their attitude and understanding of Labour and other progressive forces. Both politicians were fascinated by the success of Clinton and the New Democrats, and after Labour’s fourth defeat in 1992 were eager to learn lessons from centre-left parties which won. There were differences between the two: Blair was more interested in Clinton the communicator whereas Brown felt an empathy for Robert Reich, Secretary of Labour in Clinton’s first term, who talked the same language of skills, training and education. Brown has regularly made annual pilgrims to Wellfleet, Cape Cod, where he would meet with American academics and catch-up on the latest thinking and books.
Something profound was at work in New Labour’s attachment to America. ‘Its rhetoric is American’, argued David Marquand ‘and the influences which have shaped its project are American, as is its political style.’ (Marquand, 1999, p. 239) This for a party which pledged itself to be ‘at the heart of Europe’, yet which also emphasised the traditional British role as ‘a bridge’ between the US and the continent, and during the Iraq war seemed to have become an apologist for American foreign policy. Marquand wrote several years ago with great prescience, ‘When American and European interests diverge, New Labour can be relied on to show more tenderness to the former. Above all, it shares the prevailing American view of new capitalism, and of the relationship between states and markets which it implies.’ (1999, p. 239)
And while Brown remained mostly silent over Blair’s decision to go to war side-by-side with George W. Bush against Iraq, his allegiance and enthusiasm for the American way is as great as Blair’s, ‘His approach, the approach of the government and the new political consensus, is based on a combination of new European social democracy and North American New Democratic ideology.’ (Brivati, 2002, p. 249) With Brown this was more about UK and US common ground on welfare, rather than warfare, ‘seeking to achieve similar objectives and draw upon a similar range of policy instruments’ in tackling welfare dependency, work requirements and making work pay. (Deacon, 2000, p. 16)
Where Brown and Blair display an even more obvious difference is in their relationship to Labour and what is called the politics of labourism. This is a complex set of historical and political forces by which the party ‘has deliberately chosen to identify itself as the instrument of the labour interest rather than as a rationale for any ideology.’ (Marquand, 1999, p. 17) Blair is clearly from outwith the Labour tradition or beholden to labourism, impatient with much of its history and culture, and has constantly challenged the party to abandon some of its most outdated aspects. He has had for a decade as leader, a semi-detached relationship with Labour, which in the popular years gave him freedom to appeal to moderate voters, but now he is less popular, this has shown the lack of support he has in the party. Brown is very different, and is a man imbued with the uniqueness of Labour and its ways, and who understands how it sees itself, its culture, values and history: in short, the importance of labourism; Martin Kettle once described Brown’s politics as shaped by an ‘awesome single-minded loyalty to Labour’.
This does make the feel of Blair and Brown very different: a Blair speech can name check people outwith the Labour tradition – he once listed Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge as his heroes – none members of the Labour Party (along with Attlee, Crosland and Bevan), while Brown can wrap a modernising message up by invoking the memory of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan (and importantly, no one from outwith Labour). At the 2003 Labour conference, Brown argued that his economic record had happened because of Labour’s values, ‘Labour’s values made it happen. Don’t ever let people tell you this happened because we were lucky, it happened because we are Labour.’ (Brown, 2003b) ‘Blair was wider but shallower. Brown was deeper but narrower’, commented Rawnsley (2001, p. 154).
And yet, it is easy to dwell on the difference, rather than the common ground. Paddy Ashdown found that his long journey with Tony Blair to re-align the centre-left ended up nowhere; in these discussions Blair and Ashdown regularly worried about how to get Brown signed up to this agenda, but when Ashdown met Brown, the latter could not have been more friendly. ‘The difference between Gordon and Tony’, according to Ashdown ‘is that, while Tony is all about positioning, Gordon is a man whose head is literally bulging with ideas.’ (Ashdown, 2000, p. 484) Brown in typical labourist style has never grasped the politics of pluralism and democracy, but while Blair did, he did not succeed in championing them in office. One difference is that Blair wants people to like him and has a tendency to make people think he agrees with them, whereas Brown is more straight-dealing, which some see as being closed once he has made his mind up.
Brown is a much misunderstood person and politician, someone who is capable both of great self-confidence and sureness, and a sense of frailty and inner doubt. Colin Currie, a lifelong friend from university portrays Brown in a way that adds credence to classic Scots stereotypes:
If you can imagine an Edwardian cruise liner, the SS Great Britain, there is a charming captain, and deep down in the ship there is a hard Scots engineer who understands all the bits and pieces of the machinery and can wield a spanner in order to persuade people to do the difficult things. (Routledge, 1998, p. 333)
And there is the Tory caricature of Brown as the full-blooded socialist who will if given the chance terrify children and Middle England. A classic example of this is given by the right-wing historian Andrew Roberts in a Centre for Policy Studies lecture in 2003. As Blair post-Iraq hit trouble, Roberts imagined a future where Brown became leader and Prime Minister before the next election, allowing the Tories to be returned and normal service in the British constitution resumed. Roberts does make the astute point that ‘Brown will be anointed leader because of his past services to the New Labour revolution, for standing aside for Blair in 1994’ (Roberts, 2003, p. 4) and Labour have a track record of electing the wrong leaders for the wrong reasons: Michael Foot being the most obvious example.
However, Roberts falls for the Tories own propaganda of believing Brown is shaped by ‘the Politics of Chip’ using the Oxford snubbing of Laura Spence as an example, seeing his championing of Maxton as support for extensive redistribution and belief in public spending, as proof of Brown’s Old Labour credentials. It is a comforting right-wing view of the world, and similar to the hard left-wingers who see New Labour as a conspiracy by which a right-wing coup captured the party. Roberts believes the millions of Tories who voted Labour in 1997 will come back to the Tories under Brown in 2005-6 ‘because they recognise in him the unmistakable outlines of an instinctive redistributionist, albeit a far more stealthy one than the original squeeze-‘em-till-the pips-squeak Old Labour type.’ (2003, p. 7)
This is one version of the future: of Brown as a ‘far-end premiership’ in Roberts eyes or a brief interregnum before the second wave of modernisation to some Blairite loyalists. Another scenario would involve Brown becoming leader and Prime Minister and being a success with the party and public, and changing the contours of British politics. It is possible to imagine that a Brown mandate in 2005-6 could have much more vitality and impact than a diminished, demoralised ‘fag-end’ Blair premiership.
Gordon Brown has gained a reputation for being a determined, focused politician and he has commented on this:
I was always concerned about issues of social justice, and I always felt that politics was the way to get them sorted out. My upbringing taught me to see things in terms of right and wrong, and the social conditions that appalled me have got to be sorted out. (Routledge, 1998, pp. 334-5)
One of Brown’s favourite quotes according to Tom Brown is from the writer G. D. H. Cole’s ‘The Simple Case for Socialism’:
I ask no one to call himself a socialist unless he wants society to recognise other men’s claims as no less valid than his own … The reason, the only valid reason, for being a socialist is the desire, the impassioned will, to seek the greatest happiness of the greatest number. (Brown, T., 2003, p. 13)
How does this measure against the performance of Brown and New Labour in office? New Labour’s politics have been clearly shaped by ‘post-Thatcherism’, a step-change on from Thatcherism and the next stage on from neo-liberalism, while attempting to renew social democracy (Finlayson, 2003; Driver and Martell, 2002, p. 219). In this it has attempted to achieve a new synthesis while also negotiating an uneasy compromise between two competing traditions. Driver and Martell attempt to offer seven principles of Blairism:
• Inflation matters, competition is good;
• Work is better than welfare;
• Collective public services such as health and education promote social justice;
• Money is not everything: the public sector needs reforming;
• Delivery is all: it does not really matter who provides public services;
• Constitutional reform strengthens the UK;
• Britain should be an active player on the European and world stage, while European integration should be limited by national interests. (Driver and Martell, 2002, p. 222)
If these are the seven crucial credos of Blairism, they really belong to New Labour, and are as much Brown’s as Blair’s. On another level, compared to Thatcherism, these are not exactly ideologically-driven values, but more signposts for a post-ideological age driven by managers and administrators; the politics these principles define would only exclude unreconstructed Thatcherites and left critics of New Labour. They do in some sense amount to ‘a new consensus’, but are similar to Butskellism in the 1950s in taking its references from the previous political age. Blairism like Butskellism is a non-ideological ism.
Blair’s politics have been deeply disrespectful of much of what is Labour tradition and culture – and a large part of this approach was refreshing and honest when it began. Brown has grown up immersed in the politics, culture and values of Labour. This has at points made them the perfect double act, with many shared objectives, but different styles and subtle nuances which hint at differing ways of seeing things. In the early years this strengthened their complementariness and chemistry, but the faultlines between the two are growing larger and larger. Labour after four election defeats had to reconnect with voters concerns and not be driven by activist concerns. However, after two Labour full terms, governing from the centre and ignoring party concerns, the time is right to change emphasis. New Labour’s journey began twenty years ago jettisoning the Old Labour British idea of ‘socialism in one country’, but has also abandoned the Kinnock era of Labour as a mainstream European social democrat party for a ‘catch-all’ party politics shaped by America and Atlanticism. This is not an appropriate place for developing a progressive politics.
Many parts of the Labour Party and wider movement are crying out for a little attention: activists, trade unions, councillors, MPs, and Gordon Brown has the capacity and gift to make these people feel special, unique and wanted – and part of sometime bigger and worthwhile. The challenge for Brown in the post-Blair era is two-fold. First, can he convincingly develop a politics of labourism with a politics of modernisation, or are the two mutually exclusive? This would involve recognising ‘the progressive dilemma’ whereby historically Labour has not understood the limit nature of its appeal to non-Labour centre-left Britain. Second, can he articulate a post-Blairite modernising politics which tackles some of the key issues facing Britain after two terms of Labour Government:
• ‘the fairness agenda’ of challenging widespread poverty, inequality and indefensible privilege;
• a public sector reform agenda that involves people as citizens, not just consumers or producers;
• the lack of corporate responsibility and accountability;
• the deeply entrenched centralism which goes to the heart of the British state;
• and finally, the British dilemma in relation to European integration, and the continued obsession of the British political classes with Atlanticism.
Gordon Brown’s place in the history books is already guaranteed as Labour’s longest serving Chancellor, as well as its most successful, attempting to develop a modernisation that is compatible with traditional Labour values. In this, he is a metaphor for Scottish Labour’s journey form socialist transformation to a social democracy of reform and micro-vision, while unlike Blair trying to keep a sense of continuity. The challenges New Labour now has to address are issues that go to the heart of Labour’s timidity both now and in the past, and on which Blair and Brown share responsibility. After a decade of New Labour dominance – an unprecedented event for Labour and British politics – the time for imagination and radicalism is running out, but has never been more needed. Change is needed, which amounts to more than one of style and culture.
Many thanks to Neal Lawson, James McCormick and Carol Craig for comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.
1. Routledge’s book quotes extensively from two of Brown’s books – ‘The Red Paper’ and ‘Scotland: The Real Divide’ – which can be seen as much as political projects, as publications, and to a lesser extent from a third – ‘Maxton’ – which was a labour of love for Brown. It completely omits from history four books – ‘The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution’, ‘Where There’s Greed …’, ‘John Smith: Life and Soul of the Party’ and ‘Values, Visions and Voices’. Given Routledge’s book is a semi-official account written with Brown and his friends’ co-operation, these omissions are worthy of note.
2. ‘The absence from ‘The Red Paper’ not only of a gender politics, but also of any female voice, cannot be lightly dismissed as merely another feature of its time.’ MacDonald and Cumbers, 2002, p. 77.
3. Brown cites that in the 1929 general election only 6 per cent of Labour candidates across the country mentioned socialism in their election addresses versus 43 per cent of Conservatives. Brown, 1981, p. 476.
4. Brown finished first in Shadow Cabinet elections four times in the period up to 1997, although his popularity was in decline in the immediate period before the election due to his reputation as an ‘Iron Chancellor’. Interestingly, Blair was never as popular in Shadow Cabinet elections, and never attempted to court such widespread popularity. He won 71 votes when he first stood in 1987 – failing to be elected – then, 111 in 1988, elected in 9th place, and the following year securing 138 votes and 4th place.
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