Greasy Pole: Gordon Brown – At Last
To be fair to Gordon Brown, after waiting all that time he did move quickly to correct any mistaken expectations about the style in which he intended to do the job of Prime Minister. This was important, because any change of government or leadership is liable to mislead a lot of people that thenceforward things will be significantly different. Remember the relief with which the voters booted out the Callaghan government in 1979, apparently assuming that a few years under the Iron Lady would make Britain, and thereby themselves, Great again? Think back, then, to 2 May 1997 when a relieved electorate said good-bye to the rule of Thatcher and Major, to Tory sleaze, the likes of mad John Redwood and Peter Lilley, the vaporising of large swathes of industry and all. And then most recently there was the removal of the saviour of 1997, Tony Blair with the cowboy swagger which (along with a few other things like war in the Gulf) he had so diligently copied from George Bush, with his attention to the rich and powerful like Levy and Murdoch, with scandals like Cash for Honours and the bribery at BAE – all covered, when in difficulty, with that vacant, intensely irritating gaping grin. In contrast to all that Gordon Brown – solid as Ben Nevis in form and voice, as averse to glamour as to a baboon, stood in welcome contrast. Surely, desperately, from now on the lives of all the everyday, exploited people who work and argue and vote would be different? Better than before?
But didn’t Brown himself have something to do with this? Did not his drastic refashioning of the government make it seem that there had been a general election and not just a reshuffle of the same tired ministerial crew by a tired new prime minister? What about the appointment of Ed Balls, with the looks of an eager, energetic primary school kid, as head of a brand new Ministry for Children, Schools and Families? The motherly Jacqui Smith as Minister of Justice, whose frequent appearances on TV stood in such ameliorative contrast to the vengeful rasping of John Reid? Of course Brown did have some luck; politicians sometimes do. The first outbreak of foot and mouth disease could have been a disaster for him but as it turned out it gave him the opportunity to rush back from a brief holiday in homely Dorset (Blair, it was muttered, would have been immovably under the sun at some millionaire mate’s freebie Caribbean mansion) to oversee the control of the disease and keep the slaughter to the minimum. Such was the warmth of Brown’s honeymoon with voters that they seemingly forgave him that, in spite of his well-publicised attachment to the rigours of Presbyterianism, he was unable to switch off the rain and so save all those acres of England from their immersion in the summer floods.
Unable to organise divine interference with the weather, Brown had to resort to more usual, human, methods of impressing the voters, which meant that he had to disseminate confusion in the shape of contradiction. He was, he suddenly announced, about to launch “a new type of politics” – which sounded an alarmingly original idea until he elaborated: “I believe Britain needs a new type of politics which embraces everyone in the nation, not just a few. A politics built on consensus, not division”. Hardly had the nation wherein everyone was to be embraced in politics digested this astounding declaration than Brown remorselessly drove on, giving an example of a favourite politician: “I think Lady Thatcher saw the need for change and I also admire the fact she is a conviction politician. I am a conviction politician like her”. (He did not mention other conviction politicians like the dictators whose convictions encouraged them to organise genocidal slaughters).Thatcher may have been amused or irritated that, after all those years striving to be every Tory’s ideal of a confrontational politician, she should be admired by someone who claimed to be in favour of operating the consensus. In any case she bore it well; she was, said an aide, “delighted to have such flattery” – although it’s not clear whether she felt the same about Tory MPs like John Bercow and Patrick Mercer (last heard of as he was sacked by David Cameron from the Front Bench for making racist comments about black soldiers) who were impressed enough by Brown’s drive for consensus politics to be recruited into his flourishing regiment of “advisory” committees.
Perhaps to restrain himself from trying to lasso the entire Tory front Bench, Brown decided it would be prudent to return to the more normal, divisive type of politics – such as he became familiar with during his time growing up in the Scottish Labour Party. And again his luck was in because on 4 September the rail union RMT called a brief strike which shut down much of the London Tube system. As a result thousands of Londoners had to endure an intensity of crowding in underground trains which impressed even them, accustomed as they were to everyday cattle truck conditions. The strike arose because of the workers’ anxiety about the stability of their pensions following the bankruptcy of Metronet, the firm responsible for two thirds of the Tubes under the ill-fated Private/Public Partnership favoured by Brown and Blair.
This might have been Brown’s chance to eradicate any lurking remnants of guilt about his part in promoting PPP by embracing the Tube workers into the comforts of his consensual politics. But clearly he is not just an admirer, but also an imitator, of Thatcher. He attacked the strikers for the inconvenience which their action had caused to the travelling workers of London and complained that by trying to protect their meagre pensions they were aggravating “inflation”, which must surely bring the country to its knees. He did not dwell on the unhappy fact that a strike has to cause problems; there would be no point in it otherwise and the fact that the withdrawal of the Tube workers was so disruptive is a measure of their importance. After all, City traders who make fortunes shifting money around could stop work tomorrow and life would go on much as usual. A few days later at the TUC, confronted with a well mannered demonstration by civil servants waving banners audaciously suggesting Fair Pay For Public Servants (according to the Office for National Statistics the growth in pay in the public sector, far from running riot, is at its lowest for a decade) Brown went into one of his familiar rants: “let me be straightforward with you – pay discipline is essential to prevent inflation, to maintain growth and create more jobs.” We are accustomed by now to the persistent misuse of the word inflation and the assumption that a rise in wages must lead to higher prices when the fact is that workers are not the cause of what Brown calls “inflation” but in many cases its victims.
Brown had a long wait to get the job he had coveted, against all Blair’s manoeuvring and treachery, so it may have been with some relief that he could promise, immediately on his arrival at Number Ten, to bring in a new age of politics. How many times had we heard that before, from how many subsequently discredited Prime Ministers? It is no surprise that Brown offered nothing better than those who went before. When he is eventually winkled out of Downing Street and his time at the top of the greasy pole is evaluated the question will be – was it worth waiting for?