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Brooned Off (April 2007)

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

The bulky figure of the chancellor once seemed dependable, but now his 'achievements' are crumbling.


Fiddled statistics on employment and public debt, catastrophic distance-learning projects, ditto for computerisation schemes, raids on pensions funds, selling off gold cheap, mud-wrestling with Tony Blair, yet bankrolling his delusions. Taxes that are baffling but real, tax credits that are baffling but illusory. Programmes cutting public sector jobs; programmes promising more public sector jobs. Transport, higher education, public culture: all kept anorexic. This is before we get to the motor itself, the property-and-retail carousel which sucks in imports, piles up trade deficits, then attempts to correct these by "inward investment", a euphemism for foreign takeovers, and less seductively, international hot money. Welcome to Broonland.

It had been roses, roses for a lot of the way, while Blair ran into brickbats. The bulky figure of the chancellor seemed dependable while the premier was not: the Lord Rector compared with Ugly Rumours. Then came the preliminaries of the abdication: pathos and pitch-queering determination on one side, worthiness and painful populism on the other, while the electoral numbers got worse and worse. David Miliband may have spared Labour its Iain Duncan Smith moment, but the Scots, Welsh and council results have still to roll in. And with every jolt, and every fresh sign of a real European recovery, another bit of the Brown "achievement" crumbles.

The real extent of the damage comes when you compare the tedium of Moving Britain Forward with Gordon Brown's 1989 manifesto, Where There's Greed. Thatcher on the cover glowers out of an industrial wasteland, and there are the sort of ideas inside which, only a couple of years later, would make Will Hutton famous. Brown had come on from his Red Paper days, and a PhD thesis on the growth of the Scottish Labour party, 1906-26: sound, pessimistic about Labour solidarity, and in comparison with Ian McLean's iconoclastic The Legend of Red Clydeside, orthodox. It led to a book which tried to rehabilitate the lazy, charming "beloved rebel" James Maxton of the ILP, but all it really said was that the author wasn't going there.

Brown as editor of The Red Paper on Scotland had been like Peacock's Mr Crotchet, a Whig gent invaded by noisy ideologues, only a minority coming from the Labour party. If any of the 1975 Labourites still alive retain their membership, it will be news to me. One Paperer, Tom Nairn, was accurate in nailing the mature Brown as Hudson the Butler in Upstairs Downstairs, the auld retainer radiating conservative values. He needed a posse of like-minded colleagues, and has deviated little from them. While Lloyd George hired Beveridge and Keynes, there is no Brown equivalent - not necessarily because of a lack of Brownite imagination. Keynes would now be making a pile in the City; Beveridge would be in Brussels. Outside his posse Brown was, according to Tom Bower and Derek Scott, touchy and rebarbarative. Why?

Between 1994 and 1999 Brown and Blair introduced two conventions which revolutionised British elite politics: the Granita compact which divided powers within the government, and devolution. The personal drama of the first was fateful. Such anticipatory deals don't usually work. In 1905 Haldane and Asquith were much cleverer than Campbell-Bannerman but didn't get away with their "Relugas Compact", to put Liberal imperialists in key positions when the Liberals took power in a similar landslide to 1997. Brown carved out his empire and held it, because both he and Blair wanted to short-circuit the Cabinet.

Brown used the supply ministries as ruthlessly as Thatcher had done, to keep the spending departments in line. But it wasn't possible for him to use a gelded cabinet to evict Blair, while Blair was weakened by the destruction of his aide and alter ego Peter Mandelson through his relationship with the Brown trusty Geoffrey Robinson. Brown's initial and unexpected surrender of interest-rate fixing to the Bank of England increased his power in other directions - over Board of Trade business, transport and the regions. The ramification of "Gordon's Things" meant that the supposed "third force", John Prescott's environment empire, never managed to function at all.

How did Blair react to this? Devolution advantaged Brown, providing munchkin-like MSPs to hoover up local chores, leaving his allies free to secure power in London. Yet Blair could claim its greatest success: the Northern Ireland agreement of Easter 1998. This might have moved the UK in a federal direction, through its east-west clauses. It did not, partly because a regime of ministerial conferences along German co-operative federalist lines would conflict with Granita. But partly because Good Friday had another, American, dimension.

US pressure brought both Ulster parties into negotation, but wasn't there also a quiet, persistent US interest? The US didn't discover terrorism on 9/11. For decades the IRA had been its al-Qaida, dogging its closest ally. It had shown between 1992 and 1996 how it could end London as a financial centre with a well-placed car bomb. But New Labour's City was in 1997 effectively occupied territory, governing itself in US interests. An IRA attack would be "friendly fire". An Ulster deal meant that the "sole superpower" could ditch its embarrassing links with the IRA, and utilise the freeing-up of thousands of well-trained, experienced, British troops to be used in its "peace-keeping" ops.

The scene was set for Blair's Wars, but how did this affect the dyarchy? After 1998, with the first fall of Mandelson, and Blair's failed attempt to stitch up the Welsh assembly, Brown was secure in Scotland, with Donald Dewar and then Henry McLeish. He could play on Rupert Murdoch, who suspected Blair of being soft on Europe, and he stood well with the Labour party through "redistribution by stealth".

What survived of his 1970s leftism was his grasp of Gramsci's "hegemony", the importance of a dominant elite controlling its whole culture. Brown was prepared to surrender control over the economic base, but retain a powerful superstructure of media and its manipulators, a "rental" vote, and channels of financial patronage. This was held together by devolution and by the coupling of the welfare state and the private sector, notably through PFI, the whole being bound together by an elaborate regulatory apparatus.

Blair was not a journalist, Brown had been one, and as the premier became more isolated, Brown's instruments became self-reinforcing. The incompetent Prescott and the devious Mandelson were sidelined. Alastair Campbell, a similarly short-fused Scot, had helped Blair to balance Brown. Without him, he was weak. Particularly after Blair's Iraq intervention, Brown's power swelled, but this was precisely when his claim to economic success started to dissolve.

Brown's relations with the press had been, unsurprisingly, good. They stayed that way as long as they remained informal, and his ideology inexplicit. Having a partner, later wife, from PR with a full address book obviously helped, perhaps as much as the Whitehall spinmeisters. His anti-Europeanism obviously kept Murdoch, the Daily Mail and even the Telegraph in check. Only when Blair, compromised by sleaze and Iraq, at last began to leave the scene, and the chancellor's sums patently no longer added up, did Brown find himself in real trouble.

This has steadily increased, ironically, as the predictions of Brown in Where There's Greed have been fulfilled. A state which is a bolthole for the rich, a Greater Monaco, is not going to be a strong regulator or a "flexible-specialist" industrial innovator: options still present for the European powers and exercised through their British takeovers. As regulatory failures ramified, dour Scottishness no longer filled the bill: in fact became negative. By summer 2006 the Brown succession was stalled in its tracks.

Brown was, worst of all, no longer backed by the Scots. Donald Dewar died in autumn 2000; his Brownite successor, Henry McLeish, "a muddle, not a fiddle", proved a big enough disaster to allow his enemy Jack McConnell to butcher the Brownites in the Scottish cabinet. McConnell and Brown didn't exchange a single word for a year and in the Scottish election of 2003 Brown sat on his hands. Thereafter McConnell boasted his alignment with Europe rather than with Whitehall: audacious but remote from the facts. He might have made something of heading up in 2003-4 RegLeg, the consortium of the more powerful regions, but didn't.

Brown has intervened, incessantly but ineptly, in the "Union election". His past jibes at the sclerosis of the "European social model" have been paid back with interest by the Nationalists, continually harping on the successes of European regions and small states. His British failures bring closer the moment when a Scottish government led by the SNP faces Tories in Whitehall who have no Scottish locus whatever. As the world heads towards Peak Oil, the resources of the North Sea are back in play (oil was $10 a barrel in the 1999 contest, it's over $60 now) and make independence practical, if not essential, politics.

This at a point where the body language suggests not the intrigues of 1707, but an earlier Scottish ruler: the murdered king, the hag-ridden usurper, the vengeful courtiers, the diplomatic, polished rivals, the soothsayers and their cauldrons. MacBroon is holed up in his castle, and the woods are after him.

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