December 2, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
It has seemed obvious for the last four years, as Gordon Brown slinked into the background, so rarely reappearing in the Commons that whenever he did his words tended to be reported almost verbatim, that he had little intention of remaining a backbench MP. There is an extent to which he is to be admired for lasting as long as he did, given others in his position may have stepped down immediately after losing Downing Street, triggering a by-election in their constituency and moving on. Some became excited by his possibly decisive intervention during the Scottish Independence referendum, in which he gave some of his best ever speeches, and raised the prospect of him leading the Scottish Labour Party after the resignation of Johannn Lamont. But that campaign was exactly that, a campaign. It was one that meant a lot to him, which gives us a clue as to what he might do now.
It is a shame that his lust for the power of being Prime Minister was unmatched by much idea of what to do in the role. It is sadly what he will be most remembered for in Westminster; lurching from embarrassment to calamity as his leadership and personal flaws brought him into conflict with everyone from his closest working colleagues to the little old lady he called a “bigot” during the 2010 General election campaign. Brown was a great example of what is known in management theory as the ‘Peter Principle’ – where you are promoted to a level above based on what you have achieved in your current role not what you could achieve in the intended role, meaning many people are promoted one level above their actual competency.
I would prefer to remember him for what he was, a genuinely revolutionary Chancellor of the Exchequer who helped New Labour to rebuild much of Britain’s crumbling educational and health infrastructure after 18 years of Tory rule. The money he provided to fund the recruitment of new teachers is the reason I was able to move from management consulting to teaching in my early 30s, and the schools and hospitals that were rebuilt and modernised made being educated and being treated a far more pleasant experience than it had been.
The decision to grant independence to the a Bank of England on monetary policy, which effectively took politics out of interest rate setting (which is as it should be), was in my opinion an economic masterstroke, and has helped to stop inflation being the menace it once was by removing a lever of economic power that had all too often been abused by successive governments.
Perhaps the best way to describe his first few years as Chancellor comes from a former work ate of mine, a staunch Conservative, who commented in 2002 that “the problem with Gordon Brown is that he is actually too competent a Chancellor for my liking and has done too well with the economy”.
With hindsight, we can critique this, because he presided over a lax regulatory regime for the banking system, and managed to enter a recession with a large structural budget deficit. He may blame that on the “global financial crisis”, but many remember his announcement that he was bringing an end to “boom and bust”, as he became the latest of many Chancellors who thought they could alter the economic cycle. Keynes, after all, argued that an end to boom and bust was vital for curing unemployment, but he said that a stimulus was needed in a recession, which should be withdrawn in a boom. Brown carried on with the stimulus, rightly or wrongly, given the rebuilding job needed, all the way through the boom, so our finances were almost uniquely unprepared for the great bust that followed.
His accession to a Prime Minister was essentially unchallenged in 2007, but beneath that fact lies a litany of disloyalty to Tony Blair, who he famously accused of reneging on a promise to only serve two terms as Prime Minister if he stepped aside during the leadership contest in 1994. On a visit to Downing Street recently, I was shown the door between No 10 and No 11, which has, for most of its life been let open to facilitate good communication between the offices of Prime Minister and Chancellor. However, Brown frequently locked that door, and Tony Blair found out about many policie is and programmes in the press like everyone else. Certainly not an ideal situation. Nor, for Brown, was the feeling that he should have had a proper challenge for his leadership from someone like David Miliband, to give him more legitimacy in his new role. The non-appearance of that challenge was little to do with politics and more to do with fear of reprisals from Brown and his ‘henchmen’. If you are confident you can do a good job, you shouldn’t need to rule by fear.
As Prime Minister, he actually started well, with deft handling of a terrorist attack in July 2007. So popular was he at first that he famously considered calling an election in October 2007 to give him a renewed mandate as leader. He backed away from that after the Tories pulled some rabbits out of a hat during their Party Conference, and next thing we knew, the financial crisis was upon us. It is true that his quick action, in concert with his Chancellor Alistair Darling (also retiring), helped to prop up our financial system and helped to lead the world in a response to the unique challenges it brought. But now he lacked the money to carry out the social democratic programmes he wanted, and became a Prime Minister with little motivation other than to remain Prime Minister. His temper was constantly to the fore, and bullying accusations came forth from Downing Street, but they were the actions of someone who was simply unsuited to his job. It was a shame he had surrounded himself with people, like Damian McBride, who carried out such highly personal and damaging attacks on people in his name, but when you are someone who has run out of ideas as Gordon a Brown has, life becomes very much about clinging onto power above all else.
So what will he do now? I’m not sure he is ready to retire completely from frontline politics and economics. I would imagine a role somewhere within the United Nations, or the International Monetary Fund, or the World Bank might be appropriate. He still has a lot to offer in terms of experience, but also his ability, should he feel passionately about something, to put a strong, persuasive speech together and deliver it very well.
Many people go into Politics to try and achieve something. Whatever one thinks of him, one can’t deny that Gordon Brown achieved much. I for one hope we haven’t seen the last of him.