Essay: A Patient Politician, on Gordon Brown

What did Gordon Brown think of the Iraq war? “We stand full-square with the American government and people in fighting terrorism and will continue to do so,” he declared in 2001. But his support for the prime minister’s Iraq policy was scanty. According to Anthony Seldon, Brown had “serious misgivings.” Had he made his disagreement public, Blair would have fallen. But Brown would not necessarily have inherited the throne, which may explain why he kept quiet.

Brown’s stance on Iraq – both the disquiet he felt and his unwillingness to strike – is important for judging the kind of prime minister he would make. It is in foreign policy that strong modern prime ministers make their mark. After a while, they usually find world issues more exciting than home affairs. So what does Brown’s past tell us about the kind of world leader he would make?

At first blush, not much. According to the Blair-Brown “deal” of 1994, Brown would run economic and social policy, leaving Blair the world stage, and any domestic initiatives that didn’t cost money. As chancellor, Brown has stuck to the economic underbelly of international policy – the “soft” power deployed by financial institutions, not the “hard” stuff beloved of presidents and prime ministers.

He takes the challenge of global poverty seriously. In 1999 he got the G7 to agree to a plan of debt relief for heavily indebted countries. He has agreed to increase Britain’s aid budget to 0.4 per cent of national income by 2006. He has been pressing for a new compact whereby in return for the poorest countries entering the world economy and pursuing anti-corruption, pro-trade, policies the rich countries would spend an extra $50bn on health, education and anti-poverty programmes.

Brown’s main job as prime minister would be to manage Britain’s ties with the US and Europe. The attempt to reconcile these has defeated every British leader since the second world war, and there is no reason to think Brown would do any better. Economically and culturally he is at home in America. He admires its spirit of enterprise, its work ethic, its meritocratic outlook, its social egalitarianism. Moreover, his awakening to America came at a time when the US economy had started to boom, and Europe’s to slump. His struggle for ideological coherence has involved trying to marry American capitalism to British (or Scottish) socialism. He had little time for Blair’s flirtation with German social democracy.

Whereas Blair has wobbled between America and Europe, Brown, as chancellor, has been consistently Eurosceptic in his one area of European responsibility: the single currency. Brown has not been prepared to surrender the fruits of the monetary and fiscal rules which have defined his chancellorship. It is highly unlikely that he would shift from this position were he to become prime minister.

Committed to globalisation, Brown has adapted his social philosophy to its imperatives. The insecurities of globalisation can be minimised by maximising opportunities for all. Britain can only improve its living standards by becoming more competitive. Efficiency and fairness go together. Brown’s budgets have aimed to make the economy more competitive and raise the human capital of the “excluded” by means of training, work, and in-work benefit programmes and well funded public services. Redistribution becomes not the fruit of economic growth – the old Croslandite formula – but a means to it, by turning drones into productive workers.

Brown shares the prime minister’s vision of a society bound together by reciprocal rights and duties. The “compact” he proposes for the very poor countries is of a piece with his New Deal for the unemployed at home, and the public service agreements he has insisted on for the NHS. In all these cases, funding is to be tied to the delivery of targets. The thinking behind these initiatives is coherent, but leaves open the question of what happens if the destined recipients – governments in Africa, the unemployed or public authorities in Britain – are neither willing nor competent to fulfil their part of the bargain. Brown is a champion of the target culture which David Marquand has criticised for destroying what is left of professional autonomy and the public service ethic, and which others – including possibly the prime minister – believe is no substitute for consumer choice.

There is a close fit between the character of the chancellor and the soundness and predictability which markets now expect of fiscal policy. Both are expressed in his favourite word: prudence. “Prudence” was not just a necessary slogan for a Labour government trying to rid itself of its spendthrift image; it expresses the innate caution of the man. He can make dramatic gestures – such as granting the Bank of England control over interest rates four days after taking office – but they are never reckless. They are made on the basis of sound intellectual preparation. Certainly Brown has shown a patience most unusual for an ambitious politician, both in postponing popular spending measures until they can be afforded, and in waiting for Blair to go.

He is a dour, adamantine character, whose great charm rarely emerges in public (his prose has unfortunately become similarly adamantine). Unlike Blair, he is not a gambler. In this, one can see both the source of his “serious misgivings” about Blair’s war in Iraq and his reluctance to take risks with his political future, or, indeed, the nation’s finances. Admirable qualities in a chancellor, they may yet prevent him achieving the summit of his ambitions.