What if ... Gordon Brown was leading the Eurozone crisis?

The former PM's reputation deserves to be reconsidered in light of Europe's current economic problem

Not since the Second World War have the eyes of the world been so fixed on watching events unfold in Europe. There is a palpable sense that history is being made in front of us. Will the leaders of the old continent finally get their act together and solve the sovereign debt crisis - or will their inaction push the global economy off a cliff? This crisis has been going on too long. People are getting impatient. Obama is not alone in wondering what on earth Merkel, Sarkozy, Barroso, Van Rompuy and the others are doing. Summit after summit has failed to bring closure. The recent G20 in Cannes was depressingly and predictably a non-event.

No one denies the intimidating magnitude of this crisis but it is escalating out of control precisely because EU leaders are not doing "whatever it takes" to avert disaster. Many are simply not up to it. Papandreou and Berlusconi have been swept from office. Who will be next?

Reflecting on this display of inept leadership Jonathan Freedland rightly and boldly suggests that it calls for a re-evaluation of Gordon Brown's much maligned premiership. He should be congratulated for offering an important corrective to the standard media portrayal of our last prime minister. As Anthony Seldon and I argue in our book Brown at 10 despite being so hopelessly unsuited to the job of Prime Minister, history will be kinder to Brown because of the way he handled his major test: his response to the global banking crisis of 2008-09. Of course Brown was responsible for profound errors, of which the most significant was probably his contemptible failure to come to power equipped with a distinct programme of his own, but Brown's record as Prime Minster demands candour and honesty.

Brown's unrelenting determination to block Blair's ambition to take Britain into the euro illustrates how the records of political leaders can be transformed by the passage of time. As the crisis in the eurozone deepens day-by-day who can deny that the country owes Brown a debt of gratitude for keeping us out? Tory eurosceptics should do the decent thing and acknowledge Brown's historic role in safeguarding Britain from monetary union.

Brown is known to be deeply frustrated that he must sit and watch from the sidelines as Merkel and co fiddle around as the eurozone burns. His advice is still sought by the big players, but he once again wants to be leading from the front. Had he secured the top job at the IMF he would have been able to influence events. But this was never really a runner - partly because Brown himself did little to advance his own candidacy and partly because George Osborne in particular would not stand for it and actively lobbied his fellow finance ministers to kill the idea. However, had the course of history taken a different turn back in the autumn of 2009 things might now look very different for Brown - and possibly for the eurozone itself.
 
In that autumn Europe was once again locked in a series of crisis meetings, but this time the dilemma concerned the decision over who should be appointed to the newly created post of EU President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs. As is well known Tony Blair was desperate to become EU President but his bid was always a non-starter: hell would have had to freeze over before Sarkozy and Merkel allowed him to strut the European stage.  
 
Much less well known is that the prospect of a British President had one final flare before being finally extinguished. At a meeting in Berlin Sarkozy, with Merkel's support, told Brown that there was one Briton they were prepared to support: Brown himself. A startled Brown immediately turned down the offer. To have accepted would have meant resigning as prime minister, and whatever else Brown might be he is not a quitter.
 
Sarkozy and Merkel were both fans of Brown. Naturally they found him difficult and irritating, but they admired the leadership he had shown during the financial crisis, indeed they leaned on him heavily. Merkel would regularly call him to pick his brains about how to save the banks. At the height of banking crisis Sarkozy took the unprecedented step of inviting Brown to attend a meeting of Eurozone leaders so he could explain his plans for banking recapitalisation, a plan they subsequently used to devise their own rescue packages. The contrast with the highly marginalised position of David Cameron, who Sarkozy recently berated for trying to muscle in on crucial talks a couple of weeks ago, is striking.
 
Might Brown now regret the decision? Had he taken up the offer he would have the big post-No 10 job he so obviously craves. He would also have an opportunity to resuscitate his reputation after the dark days at No 10. Above all he would be in pole position to help steer Europe away from economic catastrophe. Whatever his other short comings - and there were many - his record during the 2008-09 global banking crisis, and in particular during the 2009 London G20, revealed his potential as a statesman. It was not pretty but Brown's tenacity and refusal to take no for answer in April 2009 saw him hammer out a deal that helped rebuild confidence in the global economy.

No one would suggest that one person could fix Europe's current troubles, but had he accepted to become Europe's president back in 2009 who can honestly say that he would not have gripped the current economic crisis more effectively than the woeful leadership currently on display?  The irony of Brown, the man who twice vetoed British membership of the euro, saving the same currency from oblivion makes for an intriguing 'what if' in contemporary political history.
 
Guy Lodge is an Associate Director at IPPR, and co-author (with Anthony Seldon) of Brown at 10
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Guy Lodge is associate director at IPPR. He is co-author with Iain McLean and Jim Gallagher of Scotland’s Choices: the referendum and what happens afterwards and with Anthony Seldon of Brown at Ten.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue