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Blair, Brown and Blind Trust (March 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

A series of assaults on the conventions of British politics have helped inhibit transparency within government and the sensory mechanism of cabinet, meaning that feedback and response systems have collapsed.


I should have been learning how to blog. Instead I was travelling the Scottish north-east, last visited in 1993 when working on Fool's Gold, the history of North Sea oil. The trip wasn't reassuring. Primitive infrastructure and a desolate urban sprawl south of Aberdeen; small towns - Huntly or Montrose - once so many local Athenses and now Tescoed to death. Montrose had once had Francis George Scott, Edwin Muir, Fionn MacColla and Hugh MacDiarmid, who wrote A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, the epic of twentieth century Scotland there in 1926. Not a bookshop to be found in the place.

What connection with Downing Street and cash for coronets? Beyond a vague amazement at my compatriots' chutzpah - Charlie Falconer (Glenalmond and Oxford) telling the English that no way were they ever going to get their own parliament? Gordon Brown (Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh) waking up in No 11 to hear the dosh raining down on No 10? The same Brown pillaging the North Sea surplus to patch up what remains of his economic miracle?

Surveying this, the thesis began to crystallise that the imminent fate looming over Tony Blair isn't to do with greed, corruption or miscasting the runes of the Labour party, or the argument with Brown, but with the effects of the political displacement previously observed. A series of assaults on the conventions of British politics have helped inhibit transparency within government and the sensory mechanism of cabinet, meaning that feedback and response systems have collapsed. Devolution, Europe and the special relationship have done their bit, but the essential malfunction can be traced back to the Granita Compact of 1994.

II Writing the dyarchy

Of writing about the Downing Street dyarchy there seems to be no end: lots of bulky, expensively-commissioned books on the individuals and their courts, natural successors I suppose to the not-too-distantly-related "Fear and Loathing among the Waleses". But a huge liminal emptiness shows up, where subjects don't fit securely into the character of one or the other contender and vanish into the cracks. Research on this seems cursed by a sort of political Heisenberg effect, where the observer becomes his or her own subject. Robert Peston scarcely mentions Europe, beyond the euro. James Naughtie on Blair the "unofficial American" is silent about the Americophilia of both men. Tom Bower trashes much of the chancellor's record, exhumes Geoffrey Robinson MP, still cheerleading for Brown at the New Statesman, but provides no comparisons with the wealthy and ambitious at Blair's elbow.

David Osler in New Labour PLC (2002) on the party's sugar daddies is immediately relevant and has no doubts:

New Labour is institutionally corrupt, in the same sense that the Metropolitan police is institutionally racist. This is not an easy or comforting thing to say, but after a thorough examination of the evidence, no other conclusion can logically be reached.

but he makes no attempt to locate this decadence within the country's economic evolution. Yes, there are plenty of academic accounts, but these can be jargon-clotted, destined for the Research Assessment Exercise, and outside that, for tiny readerships. Collectively, there seems no way in which one can "read" British government and society, analyse examples of a fairly patent malaise, and root for reform without being involved with one camp or the other.

Scottish culture again intervened. All the time, the leading pair more and more seemed to resemble the Durie brothers in Stevenson's Master of Ballantrae: charming and corrupt Alexander and dour and diligent Henry, whose hurt and frustration ultimately made him the darker villain.

The chancellor seems increasingly incalculable. The Broon de nos jours, with the laconic rectitude of a first world war general, being quite different from the one I knew in 1979, of Brown and Harvie, The Scottish Assembly and Why You Should Vote for it (Scotland was neither shaken nor stirred) - lively, humorous, self-deprecating, organisationally chaotic: a combination of dynamism and poor sight which left a trail of jumbled papers, hieroglyphic scrawls and wrecked typewriters. Gordon was honest and reliable: an important link-man in a crumbling party who did what he could to keep the Lothian Labour yes campaign going, against Robin Cook, shamelessly opportunistic and anti-devolution - "Some people call Robin machiavellian, but at least you knew where you were with Machiavelli." Some of this credit can possibly still be drawn on, but as Dunfermline West indicated, not a lot.

What had eluded Westminster watchers (and Bill Keegan makes much more sense, generally, than Bower, Routledge or Naughtie) was the oddity of Brown's subsequent obsessions.

First, he was doing chancellor for £180,000 a year, a sum which a Goldman Sachs banker wouldn't bother to get out of bed for. Second, he was pervasively Scottish. Not that he used the place as a power base (if Brown was behind Henry McLeish's brief term as first minister, his instrument was very blunt), but he used the relative freedom that Scots Westminster MPs enjoy - members of the scottish parliament (MSPs) are there to hoover up constituency business - to build a power elite down south. Third: his religion. The Scots Free Kirk tradition spawned John Buchan, John Reith and Rupert Murdoch: fascinated by power and detached from its consequences as they affected a sinful - and thus, by definition, English - world. Brown's attempts to invoke Britishness (in his 2004 British Council lecture) fell flat, and their benign aspects were well and truly screwed by Rupert. But there was something here - the Henry Durie quality - different from Blair's "I'm a regular guy"/"It's a fair cop, guv" alternations: more honourable, more misguided and ultimately more menacing.

III Granita's children

The gap between Cook's milieu and Brown's was debating. This had been eccentric but competitive and quite collegiate. Cookie had friends on the Tory side - "they aren't after your job" - and a catholic take on life. Gordon and friends marched silently through the institutions, using such ideology as came to hand. This came to fruition when, on John Smith's death in 1994 the Granita deal with Blair guaranteed him oversight of economic, training, transport and trade policy.

An extraordinary accession to the traditional power of the Treasury, this effectively rigged cabinet government. In 1979 Mrs Thatcher had cleverly appointed her "dries" to the supply and her "wets" to the spending ministries, calculating that the latter would claw lumps out of each other. They did. Granita stuck it out as effectively a new constitutional convention which went well beyond any personal psychodramas. Brown got industry and training and devolution and when the Prescott superministry ground to a halt, inserted himself into it like that ant which hatches eggs in an alien pupa and leaves them to eat their own way out. Result: transport and planning. He and Blair weren't ideologically at odds. They needed each other too much. Peter Hennessy put it limpidly: "Tony survives by consoling the people Gordon attacks."

The quid-pro-quo Broon conceded was big enough: foreign affairs, "society" vaguely but grandly conceived, and the management and funding of the party. At one level this implied New Labour's abandonment of broad-based campaigning, in favour of picking off swing seats and focus groups, and carried the risk of a fatal narrowing of vision. Along with this went the schmoozing of millionaires, the new elites of "private equity".

Brown's old Edinburgh ally Dr Henry Drucker, wizard of Oxford Philanthropic but rooted in constituency party affairs, summoned in 1996 to help fund Labour, met Lord Levy and smelt brimstone (the relevant interview is in Osler). Drucker went but Brown stayed.

Unsurprisingly, reliance on economic sleight of hand and the muscle of a rightwing press effectively domiciled in tax havens had further potentially disastrous longer-term implications, and gradually seeped into the chancellor's own ideology. By 2005, when one stripped the conventional rhetoric from his discourse, it had gone so neo-con as to be under attack from the left by the Conservatives.

The point about Granita as a sort of "basic law" was not just that it foreclosed on cabinet government and on fundamental debates about policy, but that (particularly when linked to Scotland as Brown's fiefdom) it produced an effect of complete occlusion. Second-order issues were ignored until they became deadly.

An example from history: the industrial basins of the western littoral won the first world war for Britain, but David Lloyd George, a politician of genius, was unable either to save the Clyde from economic collapse or to retain Ireland within the union. Political history hasn't yet bothered to discover any link between the two. Likewise, North Sea oil figured nowhere in the three long biographies (by Ben Pimlott, Austen Morgan and Philip Ziegler) of Harold Wilson, prime minister at the most decisive point in its history, 1974-75, and got only a few lines from Margaret Thatcher, whom it bankrolled.

Did the close integration of finance and technology with entrepreneurs, labour and market therefore help create a mindset, on the part of the political-business elite, that wasn't universalist (although the concerns involved might be globalised)? Did these pare their agenda down to what could be integrated into the dominant system, underestimating or ignoring other systems and approaches? In 2000s Britain there was a case for a cosmopolitan-regionalised politics, a new "North Britain West Britain" whose tendencies were broadly European, displacing an Atlanticism, once powerful and democratic, but now plutocratic and manipulative. Was the Blair-Brown soap - and the rewards accruing thereto - a refuge from a debate which might otherwise highlight a restrictive agenda of economic management, patronage, politicised finance and headlong metropolitan overconcentration?

IV The battle of Whitehall

Lloyd George has irrupted these days - the peerage-flogger and not the man who made Britain, and the Clyde in particular, the arsenal of the allies in the first world war, and incidentally provoked the "Red Clyde" response, out of whose penumbra both Blair and Brown emerge. Gordon Brown's Britishness spiels contained not a word about war. He was fundamentally though unassumingly pacifistic: a legacy from his studies of Scottish Labour. (Would this change? In February 2006 he was calling for cadet forces in problem schools. See that the neds shoot straight!) Yet the Blair-Brown government from the start intervened in foreign conflicts: in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and in Iraq. The premier's taste for drama thrived: turning up in jeans and open-necked shirt for photocalls with Our Boys wouldn't fail the Sun and Sky News. Brown stayed clear of this, but "Blair's Wars" exposed a vulnerable flank. The more wars, the greater the PM's power, particularly after the embarkation for Iraq in March 2003. Blair hadn't forgotten how Thatcher had used the melodrama of the Falklands to pull herself out of the mire of 1982. Despite his pro-Americanism, Brown was inevitably cut out of the circuit, although he had to fund war costs of at least £6bn by late 2005.

War also enveloped what was left of British heavy industrial manufacturing. The last Scottish shipyards were owned by the byzantine and enigmatic conglomerate BAe. Most of the skilled labour in Brown's seat worked at Rosyth naval dockyard. The military-industrial complex was chomping its way through Whitehall, its control wrenched from the Treasury by the prerogatives of Downing Street.

Such misfortunes awoke only distant echoes among fat-cat and especially defence-related civil servants. No less than 344 mandarins transferred to the private sector between 1997 and August 2004: though not enough and not fast enough, apparently, for Brown and Blair. A steady, seedy drip-feed sustained the least scrupulous bit of the commercial oligarchy.

V Never glad confident morning again!

"Evil" said Henry Drucker on being confronted with the blind trusts of New Labour finance in 1996. Osler again, who provides a pretty good guide to who knew what and when, and whose book came out from Mainstream, the Edinburgh publisher of the books of Brown. Drucker was a realistic operator. He realised that among Labour's herbivore supporters were a lot who could afford to dig deeper for the party - maybe around £25,000 a head. He viewed the concept of "socialist millionaires" with vast distrust (in which I completely concurred, having suffered five years of Robert Maxwell in Buckingham) and reckoned that the elitist days of the party were at an end.

The future Drucker sketched out in his Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour party (an important book felled by the devolution debacle of 1979) envisaged, given devolution and probably PR, a pluralistic, decentralised party, careful about its union roots, leery of what Brown called wearily the "five nights a week activists", and open to progressive alliances. It might still work.

Or have quondam activists, over that quarter-century, made themselves over into conspiratorial neo-liberals so effectively as to make what we now see inevitable and irreversible, tainting ruler and pretender alike?

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