What was it that drove him?
- My Life, Our Times by Gordon Brown
Bodley Head, 512 pp, £25.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 1 84792 497 1
Like many recent political memoirists, Gordon Brown begins his story in medias res. Given his rollercoaster time in Downing Street, punctuated by the gut-wrenching drama of the financial crisis, there should have been plenty of arresting moments to choose from. Some, though, are already taken. Alistair Darling, for instance, starts Back from the Brink, his 2011 account of what it was like being Brown’s chancellor, on Tuesday, 7 October 2008, when Sir Tom McKillop, the chairman of RBS, called him to announce that his bank was about to go bust and to ask what the government planned to do about it. ‘It was going to be a bad day,’ Darling says with dry understatement. Brown adopts a different approach. His starting point is Friday, 8 May 2009. He picks it because it was an ordinary day in the life of a prime minister, and he wants us to know how extraordinary that is.
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Vol. 40 No. 2 · 25 January 2018
David Runciman is perhaps a bit unfair to suggest that Gordon Brown’s ‘typical’ day as prime minister was no busier or more challenging than that of other top professionals (LRB, 4 January). Not many people have peace in Northern Ireland or the global financial crisis crossing their desks in the course of a day’s work. But it is the clutter of Brown’s other responsibilities that is alarming, revealing a serious failure to delegate. Why was he unveiling a memorial to a police officer in Bradford, and opening an academy school and a Sure Start centre and visiting a steel business in Sheffield?
Brown excelled in his area of expertise but, unlike Blair, was hopeless at the more difficult task of juggling several balls at once. The all-consuming scale of the financial crisis granted him a brief reprieve from this shortcoming, allowing him to return to his specialism for one last hurrah.
Vol. 40 No. 3 · 8 February 2018
David Runciman subscribes to the usual narrative of criticising Gordon Brown for his skills in leading a government, but praising him for his actions during the near collapse of the world’s financial system from 2007 to 2009 (LRB, 4 January). Brown, Alistair Darling and other leading Labour figures consistently frame the financial crisis as ‘global’, out of their hands, impossible to have foreseen, the creation of sinister forces which, because they operate on a global scale, are unaccountable to sovereign nation-states. It is a compelling argument and conveniently absolves the 1997-2010 Labour governments of any responsibility for the financial crisis and the subsequent stagnation in British living standards. It is as if controlling these unknown and unidentifiable forces were impossible, in spite of the fact that London had by 2005 become – and by some measures may still be – the world’s pre-eminent financial centre. Whether measured by assets, revenues, numbers employed or head office locations, a vast number of global banking transactions take place in London. The forces are not unknown and not unidentifiable.
It seems to me that successive governments have failed to understand what the City does and how it generates its vast income. I recall, for instance, Nicholas Macpherson, permanent secretary of the Treasury under Brown and the coalition government, praising the City as recently as 2016 for generating huge tax receipts between 1998 and 2006, without reflecting how it is that financial institutions can become so profitable so quickly, i.e. by generating income from their hugely inflated loan books. The vast increase in the profitability of the City before the crisis should have given Brown, Darling and the Treasury pause for thought. Instead, they shamelessly celebrated it.
Brown as chancellor, and Darling as chief secretary to the Treasury, have not received the blame they deserve for their approval of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s takeover of National Westminster Bank in 2000. This infected a systemically important English clearing bank with the poisonous hubris of RBS’s management, and made the collapse of RBS a far greater mess than it might have been had Brown and Darling refused Fred Goodwin and his team permission to buy NatWest. Neither, so far as I am aware, has acknowledged this error of judgment.
Runciman’s list of the ‘demands of political leadership’ includes an ability to communicate effectively, ‘mastery of detail’, ‘hard work’, ‘commitment to a cause’ and a ‘passionate conviction about what needed to be done’. None of these is much use without decision-making skills, the absence of which was Brown’s undoing. Even when he was able to come down on one side or another, the outcomes were unfortunate or costly or both. To the decision on RBS one might add the Child Support Agency debacle, the failed part-privatisation of London Underground, the overbearing complexity of tax credits, the abolition of the 10 per cent tax band, the ongoing conundrum of tuition fees, the money pit that is HS2 and, of course, the willingness to sign a blank cheque for the invasion of Iraq.