Gordon Brown Re-Reconsidered

John Rentoul

gordon brown large 370x229 300x185 Gordon Brown Re Reconsidered I have now read Saving the World? Gordon Brown Reconsidered, William Keegan’s fine short book, which tries to revise favourably Brown’s reputation, and find myself reconsidering my previous reconsideration at the book’s launch at the Mile End Group last month.

On Keegan’s central argument, that Brown made the right decisions to recapitalise the banks and that he showed global leadership at the G20 summit in April 2009, I am persuaded to take a slightly more sympathetic view.

I still think any other prime minister would have taken roughly the same decision on the banks – even David Cameron, who half-heartedly opposed it at the time. But I cannot be sure, and Keegan makes a good case that Brown, having shaken off his historical prejudice against nationalisation in the Northern Rock crisis, understood the technical economics of it better than most.

Keegan has a nice line, incidentally on quantitative easing, the policy of the Bank of England from 2008: “Even its practitioners have trouble in explaining how effective it is, the main message being that it prevents things from being an awful lot worse.” (p57)

On the G20, I thought it concealed rather than resolved policy differences around the world, but Keegan again makes a good case for its symbolic importance and Brown’s role therein. He quotes Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, who said that the G20 package “broke the fall” of the world economy. (I had forgotten a fine Brown sound bite – his wordsmithy was a hit-and-miss workshop – his “declaration of interdependence” in the Kennedy Lecture in Boston in 2008.)

On two other arguments of Keegan’s, I am unmoved: on one I agree with him and on one I disagree.

I agree with Keegan’s dismissal of the criticism that “he sold the gold”. And I disagree with his praise for Brown for keeping Britain out of the euro: ”It seems very likely that, in the absence of Brown, Tony Blair would have got his way, and Britain would have joined the eurozone.” (p33)

Later (p88) Keegan accepts the importance of the single-currency opt-out, “which, to his considerable credit, had been negotiated by John Major at Maastricht in December 1991″.

I do not believe that, Major having secured the opt-out and having promised a referendum, there was ever any prospect of Tony Blair winning a referendum to adopt the euro.

Keegan’s praise for Brown is misplaced on that point, and his opposition to the Iraq war leads him into further, related error. His partisanship – he talks of Tony Blair and “the deception” over weapons of mass destruction – leads him to suppose that part of Blair’s understanding with Rupert Murdoch was that, if he supported the US in Iraq, Murdoch might moderate his opposition to the euro:

The very thought that one of the influences on Blair’s support for the Iraq invasion was to assist the passage of another potentially disastrous plan, namely British entry to the eurozone, is, if one may resort to the vernacular, mind-boggling.

The reason this might boggle Keegan’s mind is that it is untrue. Did Brown also support the Iraq war because he wanted to join the euro?

Keegan also quotes Clare Short as saying that Blair asked her to suggest a deal to Brown, that he should support a Yes campaign for the euro in return for an early succession. This is a jaundiced interpretation. Blair had asked Brown for his co-operation, and suggested that he would be happy to hand over to him and to support his succession, if he were supportive. Blair may have been wrong about the euro, but he plainly thought it was in the national interest to adopt it, and he was entitled to ask Brown for his support.

Keegan also has some contemporary-historical scoops. In an interesting passage about the MPs’ expenses scandal, which erupted in May 2009, he says that it looked as if Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, might be threatened by it over his housing claims:

There was a contingency plan to make Balls chancellor if Darling had to resign, but it all blew over. If Balls had been made chancellor, he would have asked Lord Adonis to be chief secretary.

It was true that Brown wanted Balls as chancellor, and it was also true that Yvette Cooper could not have continued as Chief Secretary to the Treasury had her husband been appointed. But the idea that arch-Blairite Andrew Adonis would have been appointed to the No 2 Treasury job is, I think, propaganda after the event from Balls. It is probably part of his attempt to shed his image as a Brownite factionalist. It would have been peculiar to have had a Treasury Cabinet minister in the House of Lords.

The book is a terrific read, and Keegan’s fairmindedness shines through, which is why it is effective in recalibrating Brown’s reputation somewhat – because Keegan also admits, for example: “There is little doubt that the chancellor played hard and fast with his fiscal rules.”

The big question is not how Brown messed up but how he nearly pulled it back in 2010. On a pure Blairite analysis (mine), he should have lost the 2010 election badly. Instead, he limited the Tory gains to prevent Cameron gaining a majority.

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  • Junius

    ‘The big question is not how Brown messed up but how he nearly pulled it back in 2010.’

    Gordon Brown messed up when he chickened out of calling a general election in 2007, an election he would almost certainly have won, when David Cameron was on the ropes. What has the fairmindedly shining William Keegan to say about that?

    According to the analysis in The British General Election of 2010 by Kavanagh and Cowley, Labour’s 2010 performance was dire. It’s share of the vote was the second lowest since 1918. The 6.5 point drop in its share of the vote almost matched the worst ever reverse between two elections by an incumbent Labour government.

    And this after 600,000 public sector jobs had been created during Mr Brown’s tenure as chancellor. Given the scaremongering by public sector unions during the election campaign, predicting huge job losses if the Tories won, the wonder is that the Tories managed to increase their support by almost two million votes, compared with their 2005 performance.

    But a man sees what he wants to see, and disregards the rest. (With due acknowledgement to Simon and Garfunkel.)

  • Pacificweather

    In 2005, Labour’s share of the vote fell by 5.5% so Brown only continued the slide started by Blair. So, given the circumstances in 2010, to only lose 1.5% more than Blair was not such bad going. Of course, losing 12% of the vote over 2 elections takes a pretty determined case of political suicide but politicians do this all the time. Do they just get bored or does the lure of the money cloud their judgement?

  • Pacificweather

    Of course it is always possible to tell a good tale after the event, let’s be honest, I have done it myself and persuaded others to make the case for me but anyone with half a brain (and you would be surprised how few people have as much as half a brain when political expediency drives them) would see through the tale in 30 seconds. But no one is really convinced by the tale. A good tale evokes empathy, even in “one empathy” JR it seems, but it does not alter the fact that, as good a man as he was, Mr. Brown was the most stupid man who has every been Chancellor of the Exchequer in a long line of very stupid men.

  • Chief_Numpty

    … and the point of this is . . . ?

  • jamesdar

    This article pre-supposes that Blair would have kept his predecessor’s promise for a referendum on the Euro. Given that Blair couldn’t even be honest with his own promises, why would he honour anyone else’s?

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