- At long last, Gordon Brown is taking over from Tony Blair as Britain’s Prime Minister, thus attaining his life-long ambition, as if by right. That is his first problem. He has not been elected by anyone – not by the Labour Party, and not by Britain’s voters; he has merely come into an inheritance that he has long thought was his due.
How, then, will Brown acquire legitimacy as Britain’s new leader? The one thing that is clear is that he will not gain legitimacy if he offers only more of what Blair has been dishing up for the past ten years.
Brown’s second problem is the mirror image of the first. As a senior member of Blair’s government throughout its tenure, he shares responsibility for everything that Blair has done. Political commentators sometimes claim to detect important differences in their underlying political attitudes. However, in practice, Brown has remained in the shadows, skillfully managing the economy, but remaining silent and enigmatic on vital political issues, and apparently endorsing everything Blair did.
If Brown is to gain legitimacy, he must offer something new; but he can do that only by distinguishing himself from the Blair legacy in clearly perceptible – and therefore fairly radical – ways. This will be a difficult trick to pull off.
Perhaps the single most important domestic question Brown faces concerns where he stands on the balance between the free market and the claims of social policy. Blair’s government moved the Labour Party a long way to the right of its traditional priorities of protecting the underprivileged, and to justify the change he re-named the party “New Labour.”
In many ways, the Blair government’s support of free-market policies turned out to be a shrewd and productive shift. Britain’s economy grew more steadily and rapidly than it had done for several generations, and the tax revenue generated by growth enabled the government to pour money into education and the National Health Service. But this has come at a price, or rather several prices.
First, inequality has grown at both ends of the income scale. At the bottom, the proportion of the population with an income below the poverty line increased from 13% at the start of Blair’s government to 20% now. That situation is much worse among ethnic minorities. And, despite the government’s efforts, childhood poverty also has increased under Blair.
At the top, the incomes of the mega-rich have soared, with predictable repercussions, especially in the property market. Public concern about this issue has been made much worse by claims that the rich get even richer by paying little tax.
There was a time when Brown was thought to be a believer in traditional Labour Party values. Was it true? Is it true now? What will he say about inequality?
Unfortunately, Blair and his government are perceived to be tainted by some of the less attractive features of free-market capitalism. Blair himself seems to prefer to have “friends” who are very rich and who will lend him their holiday villas in Tuscany. This “closeness” has led the police to investigate claims that some Labour Party donors have been rewarded with political honors. In short, Blair’s government exudes an aura of sleaze and cronyism. Can Brown show that he is different?
The worst part of Blair’s legacy, of course, is the war in Iraq. Many people predicted, and everyone can now see, that the decision to invade was a disastrous error; that it is having catastrophic consequences, not just for Iraq, but also for the Middle East generally; and that it has seriously damaged the moral standing of the United States and Britain. The most critical issue facing Brown is whether he chooses to distance himself from Blair’s self-satisfied and delusional claim that the invasion of Iraq was “the right thing to do.”
Britain has already reduced its forces in southern Iraq, and is on course to reduce them still further as they hand over “security” to the Iraqi police and military. In reality, of course, the civil and guerrilla war under way in the rest of Iraq means that any security in the south can only be a temporary illusion. The choice facing Brown is whether to cling silently to the existing policy, in the futile hope that the problem will go away, or explicitly recognize Britain’s share in the disaster.
This is partly a question of what to do now in Iraq; but it is also a question of Britain’s relationship with the US. With hindsight, it is clear that Britain’s participation in the Iraq war was driven solely by Blair’s determination to stick limpet-like to the US. Brown believes, and has said, that Britain must always be close friends with America; and obviously that is the right thing to believe and say. But is he prepared to make clear that there is a difference between being close friends and going into an illegal and disastrous war just to please George W Bush?
So far, there is no indication that he will. While he has publicly regretted the errors in British intelligence about Saddam Hussein, that is merely a way of shifting the blame from the government to the intelligence services. But it was not the intelligence services that decided to go to war; it was Tony Blair, with the support of Gordon Brown.
Ian Davidson is an adviser to, and a columnist for, the European Policy Centre, Brussels. A former columnist for the Financial Times, his most recent book is Voltaire in Exile.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.