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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit