Lessons for Gordon

Observations on Canada

The prime minister said he would step down but never seemed to get around to it. The country was tired of his leadership (and alleged corruption) after three successive election victories. Meanwhile, an ambitious, effective and popular finance minister was desperate to take over the reins . . .

No, not Tony Blair and Gordon Brown: this happened recently in Canada. And if events in Britain continue to follow the Canadian model as closely as they have done, the outcome is clear: Brown is finished.

Let me explain. In 2001 the Canadian Liberal Party celebrated eight years of power under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. But a leadership hopeful, Paul Martin, was anxious to take over after years spent waiting in the wings. Martin had gained popularity as a surplus-building finance minister who was good for business but also, at least on the surface, concerned about social spending. His public standing was matched by strong party support, and it seemed only a matter of time before he took over.

But there was something personal going on. Almost out of spite, it seemed, Chrétien would not go, and in the meantime things got worse for the Liberal Party. It became embroiled in a financial scandal, allegedly rewarding allies with lucrative "contracts". Compounding this, voters were tiring of what seemed to be government complacency and lack of focus (even if, at least, it hadn't sent troops to Iraq).

When Chrétien eventually resigned in late 2003, things were in a mess and Martin, despite taking over amid embarrassing fanfare, became the scapegoat. He talked about a new direction for Canada, but voters didn't buy it. Wasn't he a central part of the "old" Canada? And when he tried to distance himself from his predecessor he just appeared disloyal.

Knowing his party was out of favour, Martin didn't call an election but continued to govern under Chrétien's mandate (an opportunity that may not be open to Brown), yet the waiting did him no favours.

Martin's unease in his new role grew more obvious. A micromanager with a long and respected record in charge of a single portfolio, he struggled to come to terms with the bigger job. Perhaps gaining power had been his only objective and he hadn't really considered what to do with it once he got it. Either way, the bean-counter was unable to delegate. In public he struggled to say anything coherent; in the press he became "Mr Dithers".

When he eventually called an election in June 2004 he scraped in with a minority, saved by swing voters who held their noses and voted Liberal just to keep out Canada's Tories. His minority government lasted just two years, and by the time the next election was called the Conservatives had regrouped. This time an anti-Liberal protest vote brought in a Tory minority government.

Only now, with Martin relegated to the back benches, are the Liberals starting to regroup. Thirteen leadership hopefuls - including the Harvard intellectual Michael Ignatieff - are fighting to run the party. Meanwhile the Conservatives are reminding Canadians why they were kept out of office for so long: they recently jettisoned Kyoto and other environmental initiatives, and are reopening the previously settled debate on same-sex marriage.

Things are looking up for the Liberals - but only since they got rid of Paul Martin, their leader-in-waiting who waited too long. If there is a lesson here for the Chancellor of the Exchequer it is this: don't count on it.

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The house of slaves

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.