Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Mr Brown's Personality

Here we go again, with the so-called personality issues. We now have an ex-civil service man Andrew Turnbull, dissing Brown, to add to the group who've popped up to have a go at old Gordie.

Charles Clarke once said that he wished Blair had taken on Gordon Brown in the 1994 leadership election - in Clarke's opinion Brown would have been "humiliated", and hence not had any influence over government. It's worth exploring this issue - "the Deal" - as it goes to the heart of New Labour these last ten years.

It's perfectly true that Brown wouldn't have won a leadership contest in 1994. He knew this, and set about negotiating with Blair the terms on which he wouldn't run. He negotiated and played a weak hand extremely well, winning complete freedom of action at the Treasury (unprecedented in post-war Britain) in return for not standing against Blair. His behaviour was perfectly rational and normal - most good politicians in his position would have tried to win the position Brown won.

What was odd about "the deal" was Blair in agreeing to it. If he was in such a commanding lead in the leadership race and didn't want to share power with Brown, why didn't he just take him on in a contest? Was he worried about the votes on the right of the party being split? Or was it something else?

I believe that Blair in 1994 was acutely aware that he himself didn't understand economics(being smart enough to know what he didn't know) and wanted to put the responsibility for the economy on someone else. In 1994, the Tories had just come out of a severe recession they themselves had caused through incompetance, the civil servants in the Treasury (which boasted such people as Andrew Turnbull) clearly had no idea on how to properly advise government on the economy either, hence the repeated messes since the 1970's. And Labour governments in the past had fallen because of economic crises. It probably looked in 1994 as though there was no one at all in Britain who knew how to run an economy.

Blair's calculation was that if he gave Brown control over the Treasury and made it clear to everyone that a deal was in place, if things went wrong with the economy, he could point to Brown. If things went well, then the next general election was in the bag - and despite the landslide victory in 1997, New Labour was on probation in the first term - if the economy had been cocked up, as the Tories expected it would be, Labour would have been out on it's ear in 2001.

So it turns out Blair's behaviour wasn't odd at all, he too was acting perfectly rationally. The "deal" was win-win and they both knew what they were doing.

As for lack of collegiality - we know that Blair and Brown have had umpteen meetings in private with no third parties present over the last fifteen years. We've had collegiate government - collegiality between two people.

The other question is whether Brown is more authoritarian and more ruthless than Blair. Again, probably not. It's worth noting that Charles Clarke was brought down by his own mistakes and was sacked by Blair, after Blair had promised to stick by him. It wasn't Brown's doing, and Clarke is acting deeply irrationally in projecting his resentment onto Brown. Similarly, Blair has shown vindictiveness in not promoting people like Yvette Cooper simply because she is married to Ed Balls who happens to be close to Brown. And the decision over Iraq was taken by Blair alone in Sept 2002, while visiting Bush, indeed foreign policy has been decided by Blair alone and the foreign secretary has been just a factotum carrying out instructions. So much for collegiality.

So we have had at the top of government two men, Blair and Brown, who are clever, rational and ruthless, and Labour has done well out of it.

Of course those on the receiving side of their decisions haven't taken it well. Mandarins like Turnbull probably felt their egos bruised because they weren't consulted as much - but the result has been an economy that has run smoothly, so perhaps we need more of not pandering to civil service egos. Eddie George was upset when banking supervision had been removed from the BoE and given to the FSA - but as a result, regulation has improved and we haven't had such disasters like Barings or BCCI. Control of interest rates was removed from the civil servants at the Treasury who suffered from group-think and given to a committee at the independent Bank of England, membership of which was rotated every few years with outside economists from around the world being brought in to combat the danger of ossified thinking - and Britain has prospered.

As for the vitriol towards Brown from Tories - well of course they hate him. If he hadn't run the economy so well, they'd have been back in government by now after a short rest. The very sight of him must make them twisted with frustration, especially as he has established the new received wisdom that Labour is the party of economic competance and the Tories are the party of recessions.

Gordon Brown had been doing what he was elected to do - put the interests of the voters above the egos of some of the less than competant people around him. His critics are irrational to expect otherwise. It's worth noting that Blair behaves the same way, it's just that he smiles a bit more when wielding the axe.

We are in a parliamentary democracy rather than a direct democracy for a reason - not everyone in the population undertands the finer details of policy. This point is sometimes lost in the clamour for consultation, localisation and collegiality, with some people who are unable to run a cake stall, demanding input. In our system the electorate makes one big decision every four to five years - which party is the most competant - and then leaves it to the elected representatives to do the rest. And this system works better than any other. The issue at the next election will not be about who smiles most or who is kindest to government officials who make mistakes, but who is the most competant and who can take the tough decisions.

1 comment:

Danivon said...


Senior Civil Servant dislikes politician....

I think we can all live with it. I worry that the Treasury has far too much power in government, and Brown is part of that (although it's been a long term trend).