Comment at end
September reading matter?
‘REGURGITATION AT SELDON’S PLACE’
I still find something deeply irritating about people who, for reasons of personal profit, lambast those who are down. And there are plenty who wallow in this pleasure. Among them Anthony Seldon, the historian/educator who has written biographies on both Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown. Mr Seldon does not impress me with his 20/20 visionary tale of Gordon Brown. Partly because it has all been said or written before, often by the semi-informed, biased press, sometimes even by Mr Seldon himself. Also because I notice the book is on the shelves in September, a busy month for political biographies.
Before you accuse me of hypocrisy, can I assure you that there is nothing I write here that is for personal profit. So when I attack Mr Brown, and I have, and I no doubt will again, it is NOT for my own personal gain. Anthony Seldon might ponder in an occasional moment of modesty that HE is not the arbiter of all that is great in mankind and politics as he blithely informs us how both Brown and Blair did not quite achieve greatness. For that judgement true historians know we await history’s verdict.
As we wait, who, the world asks – just WHO is Anthony Seldon?
From The Telegraph: General Election 2010: Gordon Brown – Flawed, failed, finished.
As Gordon Brown clings on to power, his biographer Anthony Seldon delivers his damning verdict on our flawed prime minister
‘I did not foresee it,” Gordon Brown was heard to say on May 7, 2010. But then the Gordon Brown story is a Shakespearean tragedy of King Lear proportions. Like King Lear, he lashes out in all directions, now berating, now making sycophantic overtures, a desperate figure clinging by his nails to the vestiges of power. Like Lear, he demeans himself, and fails to see the truth, a truth evident to those all around him.
As John Major said, his remaining in office is beginning to look undignified: quite fairly, the former Tory prime minister observed that his own loss in 1997 was nothing like as severe as Brown’s. He should really, added Major, have taken himself off to watch the cricket by now.
True, Labour avoided falling into third place, and with it the ignominy of achieving its poorest result since 1918. But achieving just 29 per cent of the vote, and losing 90 seats, was still its worst result since 1983, when the party was led by Michael Foot. And however the next few days play out – whether Nick Clegg strikes a deal with David Cameron or even if he opens talks with senior figures in Labour – one thing is certain: Brown is a dead man walking.
So how far was Brown himself to blame for Labour’s catastrophe? Labour achieved much in its 13 years: why did it go so badly wrong?
The seeds of the defeat long precede the television debates, and even Brown’s succeeding Tony Blair in June 2007. They date back to the moment New Labour came to power on May 1, 1997. Brown was already seething, believing the crown of Labour leader, which he had hankered after all his life, to have been unjustly stolen from him by Blair after John Smith died in May 1994.
For a time, he kept his brutal resentment in check. For much of Labour’s first term, from 1997-2001, Brown was the creative force, turning the Treasury into the department for domestic policy. Granting independence to the Bank of England within hours of the election result set the tone. Welfare, child poverty, the minimum wage and international development all saw change instigated by him. But for the six years after 2001, Brown became a destructive force. His ideas and creative energy mostly spent, he set out on a mission to block Blair’s initiatives.
Brown was right to prevent Blair’s attempts to make Britain part of the European single currency. But often his reasons had more to do with personal ambition, as with his blocking of Blair’s policies to make schools more independent, introduce top-up fees to universities and introduce the market into the NHS, diluting proposals for foundation hospitals in the process. He blocked Blair’s modernising of Labour in office: a refreshed Labour Party, especially under a different leader, would have fared much better at the general election.
After 2001, “prudent” Mr Brown morphed into “profligate” Mr Brown. Arguing that the business cycle had been tamed, he declared an end to “boom and bust”. Increasing public spending to correct years of under-investment in the public realm was perhaps inevitable. But the 54% increase in spending on public services under Labour, the biggest increase in any OECD country during those years, failed to deliver commensurate improvements or value for money, and left Britain dangerously exposed when recession came. Labour bequeaths a budget deficit of almost 12% of GDP, far higher than the equivalent figure in the recession of the 1990s or even in the 1970s.
The suspicion remains that Brown pressed his foot on the accelerator primarily as a way of gaining popularity in his quest to oust Blair, and then to win over the electorate. We have not yet seen a fraction of the anger that will be unleashed when the cuts begin to bite. The charge that his spending too much has dangerously exposed the country and that he saved too little, is difficult to rebut.
Rebuttal was a tactic that Brown helped institutionalise into politics and government. When in March 2007 Andrew Turnbull, the former head of the civil service, called Brown’s style ‘Stalinist’, he had scorn poured upon him by Brown’s attack dogs, who dismissed Turnbull as a ‘Tory’. But the subsequent history, and the testimony of many others, has vindicated what was said by the beleaguered Turnbull, who had ten years’ experience of working closely with him.
Brown personally sanctioned a hectoring, bullying culture at the heart of government that did so much, not only to damage him personally, but to taint the institution of government itself. For years he plotted with his close cabal how to get rid of Blair, a man he considered a lightweight, devoid of ideological commitment, a mere popinjay strutting upon the Labour stage, his stage.
Hiding behind his lieutenants from 2003 to 2006, Brown was almost in constant war with Blair, undermining and humiliating him, and trying to drag him down. Blair complained of feeling like a ‘bullied wife’ after repeated abuse on the phone or in meetings in his study when Brown regularly shouted at him ‘when are you going to f-off out of here?’
Blair, a much more considerable figure, is not free himself of blame for Labour’s and the country’s problems. If naked ambition far outstripping his personal qualities was Brown’s besetting weakness, Blair’s was vanity. He was so nearly a great man. But he fell short.
No prime minister in the modern era was bequeathed the golden opportunities that Blair had that early summer morning in May 1997. Yet he came to Number 10 with little settled idea what he wanted to do with his power, nor how to use it, patronising and dismissing the established and proven Whitehall machine in favour of a talented clique, who ruled with him from his den in Number 10. As Brown’s creative star waned after the 2001 election, Blair’s waxed, and, unusually for a premier, he enjoyed his most creative period in his middle and latter years.
But this period also saw his greatest error: the way he prosecuted the war in Iraq. Blair has repeatedly maintained he was right to go to war. That is not the issue. His method is. His failure to prepare for post-war Iraq; his eschewing of wider counsel beyond his close circle; his refusal to be honest about his reasons for fighting, and his passivity in front of Bush, when he could have demanded reciprocal benefits, above all serious American commitment to the Middle East process – these are Blair’s sins. Enduring damage to trust, and to Labour’s credibility, resulted. Another was his over-reliance on flawed people, Alastair Campbell principal amongst them, who poisoned trust in government, and the integrity of it.
If Campbell was Blair’s demonic influence, Ed Balls was Brown’s. Rather than relying on those of sound judgement in his ten years at the Treasury, Brown listened too much to those who reinforced rather than challenged his increasingly suspicious instincts. Balls was the principal force behind Brown’s diminution as Chancellor. Balls’s ambition for power rivalled that of Brown’s. Yet Brown alone was responsible for whom he chose to listen to, as Blair was with Campbell. The pound stops on the prime minister’s desk at Number 10.
Brown’s extreme tribal outlook glided effortlessly across into Number 10 after Blair, unable to take any more, departed. His indecisiveness manifested in his failure to call an election that he probably would have won in the autumn of 2007, giving him the personal mandate he never had. His undermining style came fully to light in the unseemly besmirching of others that culminated in the departure of arch-spinmaster Damian McBride in April 2009 when he was forced to resign after being accused of trying to launch a smear campaign against David Cameron and George Osborne.
The negative cast of mind he had fallen into was evident in the absence of a detailed programme for office, a stunning neglect, considering he had been brooding for so many years about becoming premier: ‘Everything that went wrong with Brown can be traced to the fact that he arrived with no clear idea about his programme for government’, said a senior Number 10 figure. So empty was his cupboard, that after years of trying to belittle and water down Blair’s domestic policies before 2007, Brown then found himself championing those same policies, such as academies, once in Number 10.
Yet paradoxically, Brown was to prove a much better prime minister than many expected. His successes were partly because his close cabal, including Balls – who he had initially wanted to run Number 10 – were no longer with him, and instead he was relying on talented and experienced officials such as his principal private secretary Jeremy Heywood. Brown’s command of economics saw his greatest single achievement, his response to the financial crisis, and the leadership he gave over it on the world stage. Insiders were surprised by his command of the foreign policy brief, and the strength of his interventions, not the least his restraining India from a knee-jerk response against Pakistan after the Mumbai bombings of November 2008. For all the criticisms he sustained over Afghanistan, he proved a more resolute leader and champion of the British cause than anticipated. His work on Northern Ireland, on climate change, and protecting the most vulnerable in society, was largely unsung and unseen.
At heart, he was a man who cared deeply about poverty and social justice at home and abroad. As prime minister he fully lived up to his school motto, which he declared the day he entered Number 10, of ‘trying his utmost’. He had to endure strains and personal insults that even a beleaguered prime minister should not have to face.
But like King Lear, Brown’s core problem was that he could not ‘see better.’ He failed to realise how much more successful the party would have been under a fresh leader. His lack of self-knowledge prevented him seeing the looming electoral disaster, and seeing that he was not the equal of his huge ambition. He was a man who possessed greatness, of intellect and heart, but whose political career is ending in Shakespearean tragedy, not because his daughters turned against him, but because his party and the country did.
Anthony Seldon and Guy Lodge’s book, ‘Brown at 10’, will be published in September.
September? Fancy that! You’re welcome to the plug, Mr Seldon. You need the publicity more than I.
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