Mr Straight and Mr Good

Paul Foot

  • Gordon Brown: The Biography by Paul Routledge
    Simon and Schuster, 358 pp, £17.99, February 1998, ISBN 0 684 81954 6

‘Happy are they,’ Hazlitt wrote, ‘for whom the guiding star of their youth still shines from afar.’ Judging from this hagiography, the Chancellor of the Exchequer must be very unhappy. The guiding star of his youth has entirely vanished from his firmament. In 1975 the young Gordon Brown compiled, edited and published a socialist manifesto entitled Red Paper for Scotland. At 24, he had just completed a three-year term as rector of Edinburgh University and chaired the University Court in the face of continuous opposition from some of the most powerful men in Scotland. The central political problem of the age, he wrote, was ‘the sheer enormity of the gap between people’s conditions of living and their legitimate aspirations’. This gap could easily be filled by the ‘social forces of production’, but those forces were held back by the so-called free market. It had become ‘increasingly impossible to manage the economy both for private profit and the needs of society as a whole’. The solution had to be drastic: ‘a massive and irreversible shift of power to working people’ and ‘a framework of free universal welfare services controlled by the people who use them’. This was a slightly altered version of Labour’s Programme 1973, which called for FAIS, a ‘fundamental and irreversible shift of power to working people and their families’. Brown argued that a Labour government should bring under public control (without compensation) the building, food, insurance and pensions industries, energy, land, shipbuilding, textiles, banking, and all monopolies and multinationals. The undemocratic and divisive power of these organisations had to be challenged by the new Labour Government since part of the problem was the ‘accumulative [sic] failure’ of previous Labour Governments to deal with it.

When, in 1983, Brown, with the help of his friends in the Transport and General Workers Union, became Labour candidate for the safe seat of desperately impoverished Dunfermline East, he co-edited with Robin Cook another series of socialist essays, The Great Divide. In his Introduction, he grappled with the familiar argument that the shocking conditions of the poor could only be improved in times of economic growth. ‘The era of economic growth,’ he observed, ‘is not only over but unlikely to return in the near future. New principles for social security in a low-growth economy are badly needed. The first prerequisite for eradicating poverty is the redistribution of income and wealth from rich to poor.’

Paul Routledge patronises the young Brown: ‘As a panacea for all social ills this vision could hardly be faulted. As a political strategy it was lamentably deficient.’ Similarly, Gordon Brown now dismisses the policies set out in Red Paper and The Great Divide as the excesses of youth. In fact, the remedies were carefully argued. Their urgency and their comprehensive scope were demanded, Brown insisted, by the grim facts of an increasingly divided society.

Move on four years to Labour’s defeat in the 1987 General Election and the subsequent policy review conducted by the Shadow Secretary for Trade and Industry, Bryan Gould. Who are the two young members of the Tribune Group passionately arguing against the inclusion in Labour’s new programme of a modest measure, supported by the Tribune Group, to buy 2 per cent of the shares in British Telecom and thus restore public control over a monstrous private monopoly? Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. To Gould’s fury they stipulated that ‘all mention of state ownership had to go.’ The ‘Two Bs’ did not get their way on that occasion, but they were already embarked on a journey in precisely the opposite direction from that laid down by Red Paper and The Great Divide. Who, for instance, are the two ambitious members of the Tribune Group sidling up to Roy Hattersley in 1988 and assuring him of their support in the race for Labour’s deputy leadership against the candidate supported by the Tribune Group, John Prescott? Right again. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

In The Candidate, the great American film about political compromise starring Robert Redford, a young welfare lawyer is persuaded against his instinct to go into politics to change the world. He starts by answering questions with independent judgment and in direct language. Yes, he is in favour of abortion on demand. Yes, he is in favour of increasing welfare benefits and much more public control of housing and the environment. Gradually, he is persuaded that if he wants the power to make changes, he must modify his language. The direct answers become indirect. Two sides to a question emerge where previously there was only one. The candidate abandons all specific measures but promises to ‘house the homeless, and feed the foodless’. His campaign slogan is impeccably vague: ‘There must be a better way.’ By the time he wins the election, all the measures which he went into politics to promulgate have vanished from his agenda.

The career of Gordon Brown in the last ten years closely resembles that of ‘the candidate’. The sharp, tough language of his youth has dissolved into clichè. ‘Equality’ has become ‘fairness’ or, worse, ‘equality of opportunity’. The big plans for public control have turned into ‘the big idea’. And the ‘big idea’, needless to say, is that ‘people have big ideas.’ The old Clause IV, a plainly expressed commitment to common ownership of the means of production, is replaced by an unctuous formula which promises everything and nothing at the same time. The shift of language disguises a U-turn in political direction. The demand for a publicly directed economy becomes a demand for a ‘dynamic economy’, in between which two words ‘market’ is suddenly inserted. From that clear demand for ‘free universal welfare services’ the word ‘universal’ is first dropped – and then ridiculed. Paul Routledge finds another perfect example. Speaking at the 1993 Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Brown recalled his old fervour for FAIS, but changed the terms slightly to dispense with its meaning: ‘Our aim is a fundamental and irreversible shift in favour of work and opportunity and against the privilege and abuse of power under Conservative governments.’ It sounds the same as FAIS, but is very different.

Routledge notes, too, how the buzzwords of the Brown/Blair language are all about change – ‘new’, ‘young’, ‘modern’, ‘relevant’. The words are used to describe policies which are old, ancient, irrelevant. It was Gordon Brown who announced proudly that the parameters of public spending for the vital first two years of the Labour Government would be those set down by the Tories; that there would be no increases in income tax, not even on the 0.2 per cent of the population who make more than £100,000 a year; and therefore no increase in public spending; no change on the rate-capping which emasculated Labour local authorities; no change in the draconian Tory anti-union laws, no change in anything. The great irresponsible monopolies derided by Brown in his youth have become the great allies of New Labour. Brown’s chief man in the Treasury is his friend and generous host Geoffrey Robinson, whose enormous wealth is stashed away in a tax haven. One millionaire in the Government is not enough. As soon as New Labour was elected, its ministers scurried into the City to seek out millionaires to conduct the Government’s business: David Simon from BP, Martin Taylor from Barclays Bank, Peter Davis from the Pru, even that devoted Thatcherite Alan Sugar of Tottenham Hotspur. Past Labour Governments had made some small effort to assert their democratic rights over unelected financial power. In the first weeks of the new Labour Administration in 1964 there was a bitter wrangle between Harold Wilson and the Governor of the Bank of England, Lord Cromer. Cromer demanded an immediate rise in interest rates. Wilson replied that he had fought an election on economic expansion and low interest rates, and was inclined to stick by his promise to the electorate. It took several ‘spontaneous’ flights of sterling to bring Wilson to heel. New Labour and Gordon Brown wanted none of that. They told the Governor of the Bank of England, to his intense delight, that he and a group of unelected, unrepresentative financiers, including a former CIA agent, would have complete control of the level of interest rates. This surrender of a vital democratic power was greeted with prolonged hallelujahs by a millionaire press almost wholly converted to New Labour. In a perversion of language his hero couldn’t have improved on, Routledge manages to describe this decision as an act of ‘radical reform’.

The praise seems to have gone to Brown’s head. At the 1997 Labour Conference he took off into a flight of rhetoric worthy of Robert Redford’s candidate: ‘We have seen an outpouring of compassion from people’s hearts. We have seen a glimpse of what Britain has it in itself to become. No more a nation divided against itself but a nation united. No longer fearful of the future but hopeful and confident.’ And then, harking back perhaps to his childhood in the Kirkcaldy manse: ‘No more the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.’ What about the many Scottish castles which are now homes for beneficiaries of Tory tax cuts, privatisations and sleaze? They know that under New Labour they are safe. As for the poor at the gates, they had better not be single parents or disabled, or the radical reformers will be after their benefits.

Who can explain this metamorphosis? Routledge gives it a try. ‘What Labour offered in the past,’ he writes ‘was not appropriate for 1992 and beyond ... The Thatcher years had made people more self-reliant and that “dimension” must be accommodated in Labour’s approach.’ As usual, there is no attempt to prove this. Who precisely was made ‘more self-reliant’ during the ‘Thatcher years’? The rich certainly were. So, to begin with, were large sections of the middle classes. But all the surveys showed that people’s self-confidence, and therefore self-reliance, suffered hugely as the power of their employers grew without check and the welfare safety-net was dismantled. They became more scared than self-reliant.

What of the second common explanation for New Labour’s volte face? Here is Brown: ‘We are in power today and in a position to empower people because we had the courage to change and modernise our party.’ This is the myth to which Blair, Brown and all the others cling and will continue to cling during the tempestuous and terrifying years ahead. They won the election, they boast, because they ditched Clause IV, because they distanced themselves from the trade unions, because they accepted all the privatisations they once promised to reverse.

Most of the evidence contradicts this view. The polls show quite clearly that public opinion moved against the Tories long before John Smith died in 1994 – and that the reasons for this shift had far more to do with the rise in VAT on fuel, Norman Lamont’s Exchange Rate Mechanism fiasco, and Michael Heseltine’s pit closures than with any decision of a Labour Party Special Conference. The evidence suggests that large numbers of people who voted Tory in 1992 were persuaded very soon that they had made a hideous mistake. These people would have voted every bit as enthusiastically for Smith, or Robin Cook or John Prescott or Margaret Beckett, as they did for Blair. The extent of last year’s May landslide is itself proof of the extraordinary shift in popular opinion. The huge majority was not expected or sought by the New Labour leader. They know that at least part of it reflected something much more fundamental than a change in Labour Party policy: a yearning for a more egalitarian and secure society where the freedom of the rich is not the only principle. To move towards this requires at least a little of the old FAIS that Gordon Brown was advocating in 1975.

This book has been interpreted as a manifesto for Brown against Blair. It is nothing of the kind. It is proof that Brown and Blair worked together to bring about the emasculation of the Labour Government as a force for change; and that as a result they are both extremely pleased with themselves. When Blair went on television to explain how and why his party had taken a million pounds from a Tory motor-racing tycoon and then personally intervened to reverse Labour’s policy on tobacco advertising to accommodate the tycoon, he was full of apologies and smiles. Surely no one could accuse him of corruption, he bleated. After all, ‘I’m a straight guy.’ This book ends with Gordon Brown saying much the same, and without the slightest hesitation: ‘I’m a good guy.’