Sunday, September 4, 2011

Brown agonistes

Publication of the memoirs of Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Gordon Brown administration, has generated a new flurry of sputtering over how such a volcanically tyrannical fellow as Brown ever got to be Prime Minister in the first place. How could Tony Blair ever have left his seat for this fellow, why didn't his ministers bring him down, etc etc.

How easy it is to pigeon-hole. People forget that Blair actually wanted to support Brown for the Labour leadership in 1992, and what do you think might have happened if he'd run? Brown's loss of courage on that occasion prefigured his unfortunate (for him) decision not to call an election in 2007, when he could have won it. Blair's memoirs, for all their grievous faults, clearly explain his mixed feelings about a man who was an attractive political figure as well as an impossible colleague. Unfortunately, Blair, once he'd decided that Brown would not be able to handle the top job, made the same mistake that Winston Churchill made on coming to the same conclusion about Anthony Eden, who'd been his designated successor waiting in the wings for over a decade, as Brown was Blair's - and that was to keep putting off his planned retirement, without explaining why. But instead of causing the problem to go away, this only made the successor more impatient, making the situation worse when the changeover finally happened.

It's also clear to me why Darling and David Miliband, Brown's top ministers, decided against an attempt to depose him. Neither was strong or popular enough to beat him. If you strike at a king, you must aim to kill. It's the same reason Harold Wilson's unhappy ministers didn't attempt a coup in 1969; they would only have bloodied everybody and failed to bring him down. (The fall of Margaret Thatcher was quite a different situation. She wasn't embattled but brittle, and it only needed to be shown how brittle she was for the magic to vanish; and note that it wasn't her ministers who held the dagger, but resignatees with nothing to lose. There were none with the gravitas of Howe or the following of Heseltine under Brown. Robin Cook under Blair would have qualified, but even if he hadn't died by then, his moment had passed.)

Besides, it's usually a mistake for a party under fire to change its leader in a panic when an election is imminent. Look at the travails of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1989-90, desperately trying to save itself and only making its defeat more certain in the process, for an example of how to do it wrong. When it's that late, it's better to steady the course and hope for the best. Indeed, despite the massively unpromising political situation, Brown - like the Tories' Alec Douglas-Home in 1964, another figure whose political savvy is perhaps unfairly dismissed - did remarkably better in the election than the initial forecasts predicted and even almost won. Given that the dysfunctionality of his government was already known, that was a remarkable achievement, and suggests there really was more to him than a bad temper and a series of poor decisions.

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