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20 September 2007

The creator

At the heart of Gordon Brown's popularity is the fact he is not Tony Blair. Here David Marquand sugg

By David Marquand

After ten years as one of the most dominant chancellors of modern times and three months as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown remains a curiously enigmatic figure. We know that he is a complex, gifted man, rooted in the democratic soil of the Scottish kirk, the Scottish Enlightenment and the Scottish Labour movement. We also know that he is the most literate prime minister since Harold Macmillan and the most intellectual since Gladstone. We suspect that his obvious loathing for celebrity culture goes hand in hand with an ingrained respect for the values of citizenship, service and professionalism which lie at the heart of the public domain that Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair systematically trashed. But we don’t know what this adds up to in terms of policy and positioning, or where Brown locates himself on the increasingly fuzzy spectrum of 21st-century social democracy.

There is not much doubt about his political strategy. He is trying to construct a new version of the broad-based progressive coalition which gave Labour its crushing majorities in 1997 and 2001 – and which was itself a lineal descendant of the Attlee coalition of 1945 and the Wilson coalition of 1966. That is part of the reason for his overtures to the Liberal Democrats, for his return to the norms of cabinet government, for his proclaimed wish to strengthen parliament, for his refreshing restraint over the terrorism at Glasgow Airport and for his self-possessed dignity at the press conference following his visit to George W Bush. The unspoken message has been clear: Brown may be Blair’s heir in certain inescapable respects, but he is not Blair Mark II.

He knows his chief task is to win back the swathes of small “” liberal Britain that turned against Labour in revulsion at Blair’s Iraq adventure and the accompanying recourse to the politics of fear. So no more macho strutting, no more poodledom towards the United States and no more authoritarian sofa government. In place of the now discredited populist Big Tent of the early Blair years, there will be a pluralist Big Tent, based on the principle of unity in diversity.

So far, Brown’s strategy has been astonishingly successful. Labour is now on course to win a fourth term, perhaps with a big majority. Of course, a lot can go wrong between now and polling day – the crisis at Northern Rock may presage broader economic trouble, with higher interest rates combining with a housing crash, a public sector pay freeze and industrial action. Some of these might be laid at Brown’s door, others might not. Some might lead the electorate to desire continuity, others might not.

Furthermore, the Cameron bubble may have subsided, but it has not burst. Yet when all the caveats have been made, there is no doubt that Brown’s arrival at No 10 has transformed the electoral landscape. Blair’s departure has drained the system of half a decade’s accumulated poison. The memory of dodgy dossiers, hubristic messianism and successive assaults on civil liberties and the rule of law no longer hangs over the Labour Party like a noxious fog. Brown’s often infuriating caution during the long years of Blair’s decline has paid off. He leads a united party, shorn of his predecessor’s excrescences. The electorate plainly likes the look of it.

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There are ironies in all this, which some of his followers may not like. Before Blair’s departure his critics were apt to drink to Brown in the way that 18th-century Jacobites drank to the king over the water. Brown became the focus for disparate, confused and sometimes incompatible hopes, some of them remarkably ill-founded. He was thought to be true Labour, as opposed to Blair’s new Labour, to stand for real social democracy as opposed to the insipid emptiness of the Third Way. There was truth in that, but it was far from being the whole truth. The culture that made Brown what he is, and the values he imbibed from it, undoubtedly differ from Blair’s. For years, he has been haunted by what he once called the “tragic waste of vast reserves of human potential” imposed by economic deprivation and inequalities of power. His commitment to constitutional reform goes back to the early days of Charter 88, to which he delivered a path-breaking lecture before the 1992 election. In all this, he stands in the humanistic tradition of R H Tawney and the iconic Clyde sider James Maxton, whose biography he wrote soon after his election to parliament. There is no evidence that that tradition has ever meant anything to Blair.

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But though Brown and Blair started out from different places, they converged on the same end point. The “new” Labour Party that triumphed in 1997 and 2001 was their joint creation. Indeed, Brown’s role in it was, in some ways, more crucial than Blair’s, as Alastair Campbell’s diaries have reminded us. It was Brown, not Blair, who saw that, to hold and use power instead of just winning it, Labour had to bend over backwards to convince the financial markets that there would be no repetition of the usual Labour story of early fiscal laxity, followed by a confidence crisis and subsequent, self-immolating austerity. This time, Brown made sure, there would be no repetition of the fatal syndrome that had produced the crises of 1931, 1947, 1967 and 1976. Rigid orthodoxy would prevail, not at the end of Labour’s term in office, but at the beginning. Much has been made of new Labour’s abandonment of public ownership, acceptance of the Thatcher-Major privatisations, continued commitment to low tax rates on high incomes and refusal to countenance the faintest hint of a special relationship with the trade unions, and it is easy to see why. But these were the icing on the cake. The cake itself was a return to the political economy of the age before Keynes – symbolised by the constrained discretion over interest rates granted to the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. And Brown was the baker.

What does this tell us about the likely course of his government? Two things seem clear. The first is that the newly resurgent Labour Party of the past few weeks is the Labour Party that triumphed in 1997 and 2001 – in other words, the “new” Labour Party created by Blair and Brown in the 1990s. It is, of course, new Labour minus Blair, and in style and rhetoric new Labour minus Blair is a very different creature from new Labour plus Blair. On the social and economic issues that preoccupy most Labour people, however, the differences are very small.

As everyone knows, Blair and Brown were often at loggerheads when Blair wore the crown, but their frequent turf wars had more to do with emphasis and personal rivalry than with prin ciple. Brown was less starry-eyed about market solutions than was Blair, and perhaps a shade more redistributive, but the notion that a Jaco binical “left-wing” Brown was held back by Bourbon “right-wing” Blair is a fantasy. Apart from anything else, Brown was the chief architect of the government’s social and economic policies. Blair was little more than a pimple on his chancellor’s backside.

This suggests that the hopeful souls who expect a Brown government to make some dramatic new redistributive or egalitarian initiative in the economic or social field will be cruelly disappointed. The extent to which Brown is Blair’s heir is moot, but there is no doubt that he is his own heir. He is most unlikely to do as Prime Minister what he failed to do as chancellor. I don’t believe for one moment that he rejoices in presiding over a profoundly inegalitarian society, in which most of the extraordinary productivity gains procured by the technological revolution of our time and the onward march of globalisation are hogged by a new class of glo bal ultra-rich, liberated from the constraints of place and nationhood.

But whether he likes it or not, that is the society he presides over, and this brute fact of life is not about to change. Nor is the brute fact that the British economy is exceptionally dependent on a competitive and savagely inegalitarian financial services sector. As chancellor, Brown managed, by dint of heroic efforts, to narrow the gap between the bottom of the income scale and the middle, but the gap between the middle and the top continued to widen – not because he wanted it to, but because he had no alternative. Yet in the world and nation we live in, Brown’s chancellorship was as good as it gets.

There is still room, however, for initiatives in other fields. The history of the British political economy since the Second World War falls into three phases. From roughly 1945 to roughly 1980, governments of all stripes sought to tame capitalism in the interests of stability, harmony and inclusion. The crises of the 1970s brought that phase to a juddering halt, and from around 1980 to a point in the mid-1990s, the Thatcher-Major governments sought to “untame” capitalism in the interests of economic dynamism, national power and conventional authority. They were much more successful than social democrats like me thought possible, but their success was purchased at the price of terrible social and moral dislocation. The central theme of British politics since the fag end of John Major’s government has been a confused attempt to combine dynamism with cohesion.

The evidence suggests that this will continue for a long time to come. All three main parties are subject to its imperatives. Taming capitalism is no longer feasible, if it ever was. Untaming it à la Thatcher and Major is socially intolerable, as Cameron’s Conservatives have at last recognised. The search for a synthesis between dynamism and cohesion is now the only show in town. But, as Brown obviously recognises, it is not only or even mainly a socio-economic show. A broken-backed, increasingly illegitimate state cannot steer an increasingly fragmented society in any direction whatever – let alone in the direction that the times demand.

The social democracy of the 20th century took the state for granted, and sought to use it to remake society from the top down. Even then, the enterprise was doomed. In the 21st century, it is ludicrously out of place. The democratic element in social democracy now has to take precedence over the social. The potentially radical but curiously elliptical final paragraphs of the Governance of Britain white paper have opened the door. The great question now is whether Brown and his colleagues have the courage to walk through it.