Gordon Brown, somewhat cruelly labelled by the tabloids as “the most hated man in Britain” is about to step down as PM and bring his political career to an end. Fate hasn’t always dealt him the kindest cards, so “the unluckiest man in Britain” might be a more apt description. This history scholar seems to have a knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all his noble intentions couldn’t save him.
With a dramatic move aimed at giving the Labour Party a chance to hold onto power in the UK, incumbent British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Monday he will resign as PM by September, but that he still wants to forge an alliance between Labour and the Liberal Democrats as part of a broader leftward-looking coalition government. This offer came just as Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats had been having power-sharing talks – first with the Conservative Party and then with Labour – as the UK’s political parties seek to find a way forward from their current hung parliament status.
In that startling announcement, Brown said the general election had produced a hung Parliament “because no single party and no single leader” had secured a majority and that “as leader of my party I have to accept that as a judgment on me. I have therefore asked the Labour party to set in train the processes needed for its own leadership election.” The markets didn’t actually cheer this announcement very much as the pound fell nearly 1.5 cents against the dollar after this statement and ended at $1.486 late on Monday, reflecting market fears over Labour’s continued presence in the government.
While this was happening, Nick Clegg then offered his own statement, emphasising that the talks with the Conservatives had been “very constructive” and had achieved “a good deal of progress”. As a result, they would continue. But then, speaking of talks with Labour, he said, this was not to jilt the Conservatives, but that it was “the right thing” to open discussions with Labour “on exactly the same basis” as with the Tories. Sounds like some serious power bargaining to us. We wonder what he’s like as a poker player.
The results in the 6 May election left no party with an absolute majority in the country’s parliament: the Tories held 305 seats out of 650, Labour had 258, the Liberal Democrats 57 and the remainder are scattered among smaller regional parties or the Greens – and one still-vacant seat. An absolute majority requires 325 seats plus one. In the election, Labour dropped 91 seats in the House of Commons and shed some 2 million total votes across all the constituencies. The Conservatives fell short of an absolute majority by 20 seats. In fact, the working number for a majority is slightly fewer than 326, once adjustments are made for the fact that Sinn Fein, the winner of five Northern Irish seats, traditionally refuses to occupy the seats it wins.
Over the past few days, political strategists have tried to figure out what collection of concessions by the Tories (or Labour) to the Liberal Democrats could seal a deal – even if the resulting alliance would be sufficiently unstable it might require an entirely new election just a few months after this latest one.
On the one hand, a Tory and Lib-Dem coalition could provide a stable working majority, but it would require some difficult compromises over Liberal Democratic positions on proportional representation (they gained a much larger share of the vote than their number of seats indicates and are proponents of proportional allocation of seats); a more proactive, positive approach towards integration with EU economic policies; easing back on defence spending for the future; and less vigorous moves to slash government spending and benefits cuts than the Tories would like. The key stumbling block is probably the Conservative’s opposition to voting reform, as it would give fewer seats to Britain’s two main parties and could chase the Tories into the political wilderness for years. In the last election, Clegg’s party earned 23% of the vote but won only 9% of seats.
Photo: Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband (C) leaves 10 Downing Street with Justice Minister Jack Straw after a cabinet meeting in London May 10, 2010. REUTERS/Paul Hackett
By contrast, a Labour and Lib-Dem alliance would be a closer ideological fit on domestic economic and financial policies and the protection of social and education benefits, but it would need additional support from smaller regional parties like the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru for it to get close to a stable working majority. As a result, the smallest parties joining in such a potential alliance could dictate significant parts of the coalition’s economic and political agenda – and extract some serious promises of “pork barrel” spending towards their respective bases of support, something that would be in seeming disagreement with party promises for austerity in the face of a rapidly growing government deficit.
Regardless of whichever way Britain’s new government shapes up, it seems almost certain this is the concluding chapter of Gordon Brown’s political leadership, giving The Daily Maverick a chance to take a brief look back over his career.
After over a decade in the wings as Chancellor of the Exchequer (aka finance minister) Brown became prime minister after captaining an upheaval within Labour that ousted then-PM Tony Blair three years ago. Since then, Brown has faced down several unsuccessful party revolts against his own leadership, most of them led by loyalists of the modernising “Blairite” wing of the party (as opposed to more old-line labour-socialism). In the post-Gordon Brown era, then, watch for a leadership fight that almost certainly will involve people like home secretary Alan Johnson, foreign secretary David Miliband, education minister Ed Balls, deputy prime minister Harriet Harman – and left-wing parliamentary backbencher, Jon Cruddas, a man who insists Labour must return to its old-style, working class roots if it is to garner future electoral success.
Gordon Brown became prime minister on June 27, 2007, succeeding his own party’s Tony Blair. Previously, he had served as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2 May 1997 until he became the country’s political leader. Before serving as Chancellor, he was his party’s shadow Chancellor for five years, as well as shadow Secretary of State for Trade before that.
Brown is 59 years old (his political opposition – David Cameron and Nick Clegg are nearly a generation younger). Brown and his wife Sarah have two sons (a daughter died just after her birth) and his family background is firmly Scottish – his father was a minister in the Church of Scotland who was fond of quoting Martin Luther King’s “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve” to his son. Brown earned a PhD in history from the University of Edinburgh with a dissertation on “The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland 1918–29”. To the Daily Maverick at least, Brown has always seemed to be the political version of the Eric Liddell character in the film Chariots of Fire.
Brown’s most important legacy will almost certainly be the major restructuring of Britain’s monetary and fiscal policy. He engineered the transfer of interest rate-setting powers to the Bank of England, a wide extension of the powers of the Treasury to oversee domestic policy and the transfer of responsibility for banking supervision to the Financial Services Authority. More controversially, he pushed for removal of the 10% “starting rate” of personal income tax that he had, himself, introduced in 1999 – something the Tories charged was a stealth wealth tax.
The young Gordon Brown entered the University of Edinburgh at the precocious age of 16 but, just prior to that, he was injured in an end-of-term rugby match. The resulting retinal detachment left him blind in his left eye. Then, while in university, the same symptoms presented themselves in his right eye, although experimental surgery saved the sight in that eye.
Before entering politics directly, he lectured in politics at the Glasgow College of Technology and then was a journalist at Scottish Television, eventually becoming its current affairs editor until he was elected to parliament in 1983.
Joining parliament, he rose up the ranks as an opposition strategist and when Labour’s leader, John Smith, suddenly died in May 1994, Brown did not contest the party’s leadership with Tony Blair. As a result, the long-standing rumour is that the two men struck a deal in which Blair promised to give Brown control of economic policy if Brown would not oppose Blair’s run for party leadership. True or not, the relationship between the two was a key to the success of “New Labour” and in public they mostly showed a united front, despite reported serious private rifts.
Brown’s 10 years and two months as Chancellor of the Exchequer made him the longest-serving Chancellor in modern history. In addition to pushing the Bank of England’s operational independence and responsibility for setting interest rates, he successfully opposed entry into the Eurozone, changed the inflation measure from the Retail Price Index to the Consumer Price Index to reflect economic changes and transferred responsibility for banking supervision to the Financial Services Authority. While these measures have been generally applauded, retrospectively some now claim this new arrangement ultimately exacerbated the severity of the 2007 to 2008 global banking crisis for Britain.
When Blair then announced in September 2006 that he would step down within a year, Brown was the only serious candidate to replace him. With their scripting of the handover, Brown was rolled out as a global economic statesman with a vision for leadership and global change, with Brown stressing improvements in education, support for international development, narrowing economic inequalities, renewing Britishness (whatever that means), restoring popular trust in politics, and winning those elusive “hearts and minds” in the war on terror, all as key priorities.
But, it was clearly Brown’s very, very bad luck that the global economic crisis hit just as he was coming into his own as prime minister and as popular discontent with Britain’s role in the Iraq invasion was growing – something that eventually led to a televised panel of inquiry over the war. Regardless, Brown has received high marks from many commentators for his actions early on in the financial crisis to help abate its severity and he can hardly be labelled the primary proponent of the country’s Iraq involvement – or its advocacy of the rationale for it – those pesky, invisible, unfindable weapons of mass destruction.
If Gordon Brown has had a political credo motivating his positions, he himself has said it is: “Every child should have the best start in life, that everybody should have the chance of a job, that nobody should be brought up suffering in poverty. I would call them the beliefs that you associate with civilisation and dignity.” One could have advocated a whole lot worse.
By J Brooks Spector
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