Back to Brown

Change. Experience. Experience. Change. Politics. Does this sound familiar?

Pretty much everybody in the UK must be aware that Gordon Brown is not the most popular of British Prime Ministers. Brown spent a decade as Chancellor of the Exchequer, responsible for managing the British economy. Only a year after being promoted to Prime Minister, the economy is in a tough spot. Who is to blame? Like every politician, Brown took credit when things were going well, but concluded that forces outside of his control were to blame when things turned bad. Not surprisingly, a lot of the British electorate sees it differently. I am not going to comment on who or what is responsible for the UK’s economy. The short answer is that there is no short answer. Lots of factors affect an economy, which is why economic models are no more reliable than weather models. But this crisis does prompt another question. In a democracy, how do you compare the importance of experience with the necessity for change?

In Brown’s speech to the Labour Party Conference, he observed:

I’m all in favour of apprenticeships, but let me tell you this is no time for a novice.

This comment has been latched on to by most pundits. The implication is that, at a time of financial stress, you cannot afford an inexperienced leader. Is this argument convincing? By that logic, Robert Mugabe’s incompetence in ruining the economy of Zimbabwe should be rewarded by keeping him in power forever. It also means that when things go well, you should reward the leader by kicking them out and replacing them with somebody new. The thing about politicians is that, more than anything, they want power. They want it when they are young, they want it when they are old. They never stop wanting it. So when they are young, they emphasize the advantages of youth. When they are old, they emphasize the advantages of age. Youth is associated with vigour. Age is associated with experience. Hence, youthful politicians can more easily adopt the mantra of ‘change’ – observe how Barack Obama has tried to take ownership of the word. Not having a track record can also be an advantage, as it means you will have fewer skeletons in the closet. Without the burden of history, a young candidate can easily raise expectations without the fear of contradicting their former decisions. However, wily political operators can find ways to turn age to their advantage. They can present themselves as doers, realists, pragmatists, fighters and, ultimately, survivors. They have the knowledge to get things done. They can even show off their mastery of the political game. Take this clip from a 1984 Presidential campaign debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale:

The downside to knowing how to get things done is that it naturally prompts a question: what have you done? Or, in tough times, it can prompt a more acute challenge: why did you not do something sooner? I expect that secretly the Conservative opposition will be glad to see Brown hold on to the Labour Party leadership. The longer Brown stays, the harder it will be to change the Labour Party leader and successfully re-launch the party in time for a general election that must occur by mid-2010. With Brown in charge, whatever goes wrong for the country can be laid at Brown’s doorstep. Whatever Brown does to improve the economy will only beg the question of why he did not do it sooner. Inadequate regulation of banks? Brown could have changed the regulations. Excessive household debt and reckless lending? Brown could have curbed them both. Excessive bonuses focused on short-term risks? Brown could have legislated to limit them. Unlike the Conservatives, or even a new Labour leader, when Brown makes changes he also has to explain why he did not take action before. On the other hand, if Brown does not make changes, he can be presented as a Nero – fiddling whilst Rome burns.

Whilst researching this article, I noticed an interesting error on the Labour Party’s website. In his conference speech, Brown said:

Let us be clear the modern role of government is not to provide everything, but it must be to enable everyone.

And just as we know that governments cannot and should not do everything, so too we know markets cannot deliver it all on their own.

And just as those who supported the dogma of big government were proved wrong, so too those who argue for the dogma of unbridled free market forces have been proved wrong again.

The Labour Party version omits the word ‘again’. If you do not believe me, listen to the audio of the speech – the relevant sentence begins 10 minutes 37 seconds into the recording. Perhaps it is a simple accident, but it is telling. Who exactly has been proved wrong again? If Brown is blaming unbridled market forces for recent events, and he knows unbridled forces have been proved wrong previously, then why were they unbridled? In short, why did Chancellor Brown choose not to act to prevent market excess, when Prime Minister Brown knows they need to be reigned in now? Brown went on to say:

And so it falls to this party and to this government, with our commitment both to fairness and to business, to propose and deliver what after recent events everyone should now be willing to accept – that we do all it takes to stabilise the still turbulent financial markets and then in the months ahead we do nothing less than rebuild the world financial system around clear principles.

And friends, the work begins tomorrow.

By talking of tomorrow, Brown was positioning himself as a man of action. That may work with some. Others may find Brown’s talk of tomorrow to be a reminder of what was left undone yesterday. When you employ a man to do a job for ten years, you might reasonably assume he should have started work by now.

Enoch Powell said that “all political lives end in failure”. Every politician, however successful, must stand aside eventually. Whether it is past mistakes, a loss of glamour, waning powers, or getting the blame for problems outside of their control, no politician can go on forever. Most must stop sooner than they would like. Brown had his decade as Chancellor, but doubtless laments that he had to wait so long for Tony Blair to step aside from the top job. On a personal level, it is possible to feel pity for Brown. After so long in power, your government’s mistakes accumulate, and bad memories of when the opposition were last in power will fade. Brown’s government is shackled by the voting inertia that comes with long service. A few mistakes and a economic downturn may conspire to guarantee that Brown suffers the ignominy of a few years of unpopular rule, followed by electoral calamity. It is a shame for an intelligent and talented politician who may have otherwise left a very different legacy. But voters are not motivated by legacies. They are motivated by what politicians promise to deliver, and by delivery on those promises. Throughout his time, there has been no doubt what counts as Brown Promise no.1:

The British economy of the future must be built not on the shifting sands of boom and bust, but on the bedrock of prudent and wise economic management for the long term. 1997

Now it is true to say in Britain that the last forty years has been characterised by stop go, boom bust, instability in economic policy. And so I can tell you that the first objective of the new government has been the determination to ensure monetary and fiscal stability, in place of stop go, and to do so in an economy far more open than the sheltered national economics of the past. 1998

The way forward is for governments to consciously pursue monetary and fiscal stability through setting clear objectives, establishing proper rules, and requiring openness and transparency – the new rules of the game. Particularly important for a Britain which has been more subject than most economies to the instability of boom-bust cycles and constantly changing policies. 1999

And so Brown’s promise went on, every year after that. Brown’s main electoral promise has been an end to ‘boom-bust’ or ‘stop-go’ economic cycles. See here for an excellent collection of Brown quotes repeating the promise over and over, year after year. Now that the economy appears to be looking more bust than it has in a very long time, the failure to keep that promise will dog Brown to the end of his career. The economic downturn may not be his fault. But if recession is outside of Brown’s control, then his promise should never have been made.

Gordon Brown calculatorThe tragedy of Gordon Brown is that he risks being remembered as the greatest ever economic bungler, and the man who grew impatient with Tony Blair. People may forget he was once the steely custodian of the nation’s economy, who also set a precedent in campaigning for a fairer deal for the poor, both at home and abroad. New economic woes allow old political foes to poke fun at Brown in ways that were previously unimaginable. For example, follow the link on the right for propaganda from the ‘Taxpayer’s Alliance’.

Young GordonEverybody starts young, and grows old. Politicians are not exempt. When Brown said this is no time for novices, it reminded me that the grey-haired steward of prudence was once a young man himself. Brown was once the novice. Brown was born in 1951. His comment on novices can be variously seen as jibes at the expense of two Davids. David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives, was born in 1966. David Miliband, a potential successor to Brown as Labour Party leader, was born in 1965. But Brown was younger, and even less experienced, when he first rose to prominence. Back in 1987, when still just a thirty-something, Brown was given the job of Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In other words, he was the Labour opposition’s deputy spokesperson on economic affairs. In October 1988, his boss, the Shadow Chancellor John Smith, suffered his first heart attack. Smith spent three months away from Parliament to recover. As a consequence, the young Brown had to step up and take on the role of debating with the then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, about the state of the economy. In Parliament, Brown ferociously castigated Lawson, and ducked any challenges about his own lack of experience. And even back then, as can be seen in Hansard, Brown had adopted the rhetoric for which he would later become famous:

The Chancellor knows about stop-go policies. He made a reasonable living in the 1960s and 1970s castigating its ex-practitioners. He knows about boom and bust. He knows about spending sprees and about inflationary hangovers. He knows all about the cycle of overindulgence and about having to pay the bills later. Yet this Chancellor has become no less a stop-go Chancellor than Selwyn Lloyd, whom he much criticised. He has become no less a boom and bust Chancellor than Lord Barber, whom he and his friends castigated. The most serious charge of all is that he is the only stop-go Chancellor in history who has had the full investment opportunities of North sea oil, opportunities for a real supply side miracle which have been dissipated and squandered. No Chancellor has had better luck and worse judgment.

The Chancellor has claimed only one stated objective and he has chosen to use only one instrument of policy. He has had five years in which to pursue his single goal using his single instrument of policy. Even with the unique advantages available to him, he has failed. All he has done is to create tax opportunities, tailor-made for people with vast fortunes in the City. To the City, sooner or later, the Chancellor will doubtless go. He has failed the country.

It is an irony that Brown’s career has had a certain similarity to Lawson’s. Both had difficult relationships with the Prime Minister. Both were long-serving Chancellors, and both were considered very successful in the job. Both performed the rare feat of occasionally delivering government budgets which repaid debt instead of borrowing even more. Lawson’s career ended in failure, when he resigned rather than be implicitly undermined by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who had employed an economic advisor that openly disagreed with Lawson’s policies. Brown’s career will likely end in failure too. Either his party or the electorate will end his political career, as both gradually lose faith in his capacity to change after decades of making the same promise. Brown’s vision of an end to stop-go economics was only a mirage. The ballot box is the least forgiving way to end a political career, but Brown will doubtless battle to the last. One can only guess where Brown will go when he is eventually ousted, and who will then decide the next change in Britain’s economic direction.

1 Comment

  1. (disclaimer: Eric is a good pal; I have a natural bias) Eric – superb article, yes article, for that it is what it is – a better level of research and insight than I’ve read from the Broadsheet boozers…

    You should have been up here with a press pass…

    Now, if you only you’d drop that block quoting 🙂

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