Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Gordon’s Last Stand

Britain's prime minister is on his last legs.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Time appears to be running out for Gordon Brown, Britain's beleaguered prime minister. He has to call a general election by the summer of 2010 and at present is 14 points behind in the opinion polls with a mere 29 percent of the vote. Nothing seems to be going right for him. He has lost control of the economy, lost control of immigration, lost control of Scotland (his home turf), lost control of defense and security policy. Even the Northern Ireland peace process is under attack from renewed republican terrorism.

Nor can he rely on much public sympathy. Unlike Tony Blair, he lacks charm; he is not one of the beautiful people; his Scottish accent grates on many English ears; he resents being depicted as fat by cartoonists; he comes across as cold and even unnatural his jaw seems to detach itself in a strange manner when he inhales while speaking. Even his undoubted intelligence (Prospect magazine, written by Britain's would-be intellectuals for other would-be intellectuals, ran a series of six articles in 2007 on Brown as an intellectual) appears to be simply that of a boring school swat. Finally, the causes he takes up his Britishness campaign for example appear contrived and artificial. This man seems doomed.

Once upon a time he could plausibly pass himself off as a successful chancellor of the exchequer presiding over low inflation and steady growth (averaging about 2.7 percent annually) and basking in a reputation for financial and fiscal prudence by giving control of interest rates to the Bank of England and refusing to raise income taxes. Spending was kept within strict limits and the currency remained the pound sterling rather than the euro. All that was overshadowed after 2000, when he signaled he would in the future spend unprecedented amounts on education and health. Brown's campaign could have been popular had the end results been as wonderful as promised by government propaganda. Instead, there was little evidence of value for money, with reports multiplying of filthy hospital wards, patients still waiting for beds, and infestations of superbugs.

Time appears to be running out for Gordon Brown, Britain’s beleaguered prime minister. He has to call a general election by the summer of 2010 and at present is 14 points behind in the opinion polls with a mere 29 percent of the vote. Nothing seems to be going right for him. He has lost control of the economy, lost control of immigration, lost control of Scotland (his home turf), lost control of defense and security policy. Even the Northern Ireland peace process is under attack from renewed republican terrorism.

Nor can he rely on much public sympathy. Unlike Tony Blair, he lacks charm; he is not one of the beautiful people; his Scottish accent grates on many English ears; he resents being depicted as fat by cartoonists; he comes across as cold and even unnatural his jaw seems to detach itself in a strange manner when he inhales while speaking. Even his undoubted intelligence (Prospect magazine, written by Britain’s would-be intellectuals for other would-be intellectuals, ran a series of six articles in 2007 on Brown as an intellectual) appears to be simply that of a boring school swat. Finally, the causes he takes up his Britishness campaign for example appear contrived and artificial. This man seems doomed.

Once upon a time he could plausibly pass himself off as a successful chancellor of the exchequer presiding over low inflation and steady growth (averaging about 2.7 percent annually) and basking in a reputation for financial and fiscal prudence by giving control of interest rates to the Bank of England and refusing to raise income taxes. Spending was kept within strict limits and the currency remained the pound sterling rather than the euro. All that was overshadowed after 2000, when he signaled he would in the future spend unprecedented amounts on education and health. Brown’s campaign could have been popular had the end results been as wonderful as promised by government propaganda. Instead, there was little evidence of value for money, with reports multiplying of filthy hospital wards, patients still waiting for beds, and infestations of superbugs.

On education, the story has been much the same declining standards and grade inflation. Social services are overstretched and unable to supervise children at risk. Prisons are full to overflowing, so that criminals who should be in jail merely receive cautions or fines, given that much-needed new prisons have not been built.

With such deficiencies in social services despite the extra spending, critics have been quick to highlight Gordon’s many other sins as chancellor: his destruction of Britain’s previously uniquely healthy private pension schemes, the huge expansion of public service jobs (leaving many regions of the country more than 60 percent dependent on the state for employment), the sale of 60 percent of the country’s gold reserves at a rock-bottom price, the poor condition of public transportation, the lack of equipment for the armed forces, fighting two wars on a declining peacetime budget, and now, especially, his glaringly deficient regulation of financial markets.

At his peak, Brown believed himself to be a modern William Gladstone and dismissed Blair as an intellectual lightweight. Were he with us today, the Victorian era’s greatest prime minister would have little praise for Brown not just on economic grounds, but on account of the authoritarian and illiberal aspects of his style of government.

Brown’s Britain is so obsessed with security that it has more CCTV cameras per square mile than anywhere else in the world; it even toyed with the idea of putting huge radio masts in the streets to tape public conversations. The government wants to hold terrorist suspects without charge for 42 days. (Blair wanted 90!) It is still on course to spend 40 billion on biometric identity cards that would have to be carried at all times despite recent research showing that they could be copied by criminals in only 20 minutes. Almost every week, it seems, some government ministry or agency loses the confidential details of tens, or even hundreds of thousands, of people, including military personnel. The government has also lost control of immigration and has simply no idea who enters or leaves the country, legally or otherwise. The latest estimate of illegal immigrants in Britain is 1 million. The United Nations has just predicted its population in 2050 will be the largest in Europe! Guess why.

Brown and Blair once thought that New Labour could retain power forever. Their secret weapon was the establishment Scottish home rule in 1997 and an accompanying voting system that would effectively marginalize the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and the Tories. The Scottish Tories were eliminated as a major force almost immediately, but the SNP won the last elections for the new Scottish Assembly and have taken two of Labour’s safest Scottish seats in by-elections. If Labour were to lose Scotland in a general election, its days in government would be over. Fortunately for Brown, the present recession has been as big a blow for the SNP as for him. Both the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland have had to be bailed out by London, and the SNP’s vaunted models of independent government Ireland and Iceland have been bankrupted. So the Scottish vote next year is difficult to predict.

In any case, Gordon has taken to stressing his Britishness and has forced those seeking British citizenship to pass exams on the concept. There’s an inherent contradiction here. (Most natural-born Brits would fail such a test, because the essence of Britishness is understatement you know you are British, you don’t talk about it or explain it.) His campaign for Britain is an embarrassment and also hypocrisy because he just rammed through Parliament the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which deprives the U.K. of its national sovereignty. Voters are not unaware of all this.

In the end, Brown’s future will probably depend on whether his plan to conquer the recession by spending trillions will work. This is why it is so important for him to have Barack Obama on his side. It is not just a matter of soaking up charisma; he needs to show that Obama agrees with him. Obama on the other hand, obviously knows a charisma-free zone when he sees one and does not need to become identified with a loser.

Brown, like Obama, will be judged on whether he can deliver an economic miracle. Unlike his American counterpart, however, he needs his miracle by next year.

As I say, Gordon seems doomed.

<p> Alan Sked is a professor of international history and a former convener of European studies at the London School of Economics. </p>

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