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.