No fault, no debate
The longer the Prime Minister remains silent about the mistakes of the past, the less convincing he
Mr Brown is not going to apologise. He has made that perfectly clear by his silence, if nothing else. Alas, he is wrong. There was a moment last October when we glimpsed a different Gordon Brown as, seemingly energised by the financial calamity, he showed a boldness of action that suggested he might not be a prisoner of his past. But since then he has been the dour and defensive Prime Minister that we have grown accustomed to. There are three reasons why he should say mea culpa.
First, we need to try to understand the causes of the financial crash. We have proximate explanations but it will take a long time for us to arrive at any deeper conclusions. If the Prime Minister admitted
to his own responsibility in the financial meltdown, that would set the tone for British society to enter into a more meaningful debate about the debacle. If the Prime Minister shows contrition, it encourages everyone else to do likewise. That is what leadership is about. And after a decade of gross excess, contrition is surely an attitude that should be encouraged.
Second, until and unless Brown expresses some responsibility for what has happened, there are strong grounds for believing that he has only a superficial understanding of why it all went wrong. Not being privy to his innermost thoughts, I am not clear whether he really believes he is blameless or whether he thinks that any admission of culpability will be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Beyond a point it probably doesn’t matter, because the net effect is more or less the same. But if he genuinely thinks he is not responsible, then he is never going to understand what has happened and why. And if he believes that he was complicit but cannot bring himself to say so publicly, then he will be unable to lead any serious discussion about what has gone wrong.
In practice, I fear, it is probably a combination of the two. He cannot bring himself to admit that his whole strategy as chancellor was deeply flawed and that the New Labour project was fundamentally misconceived and has now disintegrated. It is too close to saying that your life’s work was a failure. To let go of one’s past, especially the ideas that have informed it, is extremely difficult. So Brown is in denial mode – both personally and publicly. The consequences are clear for all to see. When the crisis first broke, he claimed that Britain was better placed than other nations to ride out the recession. This was patently untrue; in fact, the contrary was the case. But to make such a bold statement – which could be disproved so quickly – suggests that he really believed it, that his own sterling work as chancellor would serve his country well in the coming hour of need.
Even more telling has been his handling of the banks. The boldness of his response last autumn is now a distant memory. Ever since, each new package has proved not only too little, but also too weak. As he is an architect of the previous era, this is hardly surprising. He is accustomed to handling the City with kid gloves, promoting rather than doubting the bankers’ cause, defending their bonus culture rather than deprecating it. The insurance policy for toxic assets is widely regarded as far too generous to the banks. His political rhetoric towards them is behind the public mood. The reason is simple: he is too steeped in the neoliberal, deregulated era to be able to extricate himself from it. If he had shown a willingness to admit a measure of responsibility for the past, this would have acted not only publicly but also in his own mind as some kind of settlement with the past, as a way of closing one era and opening a new and very different one.
Third, it is impossible to embrace this new era, and to understand what it might be, until what was wrong with the past, and responsibility for it, are recognised. The consequence is that Brown is a man of the past masquerading as the leader for the future. The longer he remains silent about the past, the less convincing he is as a leader for the present, let alone the future. The contrast between the US president, Barack Obama, and Brown when they met in Washington, DC this month was striking: Obama has no problem presenting himself as an agent of change because that is what he is; he has no stake in the past and his victory was largely a result of the financial meltdown. Brown, in contrast, is a product of the old, discredited era, just like Bill Clinton. The real need now is to break with the past, rather than emphasise its continuities with the present. What do 1997-2007 and 2007-“who knows when” have in common, apart from Brown’s desire to defend his role as chancellor?
In refusing to break with the past, Brown is preventing the Labour Party from engaging properly with the crisis and thereby with the future. Given Brown’s denial about the past, the Labour Party can only adopt, at best, a crablike posture towards the crisis. As a result, the discussion in the Labour Party has rarely risen above the banal and pedestrian. It is constantly behind public opinion. The debate that should be taking place is largely absent, or reduced to strangled utterances – a samizdat tape in the case of the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls. I want to hear what he thinks about the crisis and its causes: I am sure he has much to say. Ditto the Treasury duo of Alistair Darling and Yvette Cooper; and many others. But while the leader remains obstinately silent, there can be no proper discussion and the Labour Party is denied the chance to engage with the present.
The consequence? Labour will enter the next election as the voice and defender of the past. And only after its defeat at the next general election will the discussion that should be happening now commence.
To read Martin Jacques’s recent essay on the “New Depression” and other contributions to our Thinking the Crisis series go to: www.newstatesman.com