14th October 2010 Book Reviews
Steve Richards explores and goes some way towards capturing the extraordinary complexity of Gordon Brown, a complexity underappreciated because – as Richards emphasises at the outset of his new book – most journalists who wrote about Blair and Brown were every bit as partisan as their subjects, and propagated the same angry oversimplifications that the two principals tended to apply to each other.
To my surprise, I came to see both the Blair and the Brown leaderships from the inside, and can attest to the complexity. In the domestic arena, I was one of the most ardent “Blairites”, pioneering with passion many of Tony Blair’s most challenging reforms and constantly urging him to be bolder. My view was – and is – that he was not ambitious enough in extending choice, quality and diversity in the public services on the back of the huge extra spending that today already looks like a golden age of plenty and opportunity for the public sphere.
My relations with Team Brown were constantly tense and difficult. There were endless arid arguments about the supposed danger to equality of giving parents and patients greater powers of choice, and more to choose from, within the rapidly expanding state education and health sectors, and about whether the middle class would be “overprivileged” at the expense of the “poor”. Virtually everything opposed by the trade unions was attacked by No 11 in concert. But I had no desire to remain a neutered minister after Blair’s departure, and I made no compromises beyond those that Blair conceded. With Brown in person, I exchanged barely a word during this period.
Then, to my astonishment, within days of Blair announcing his resignation, a call came from the chancellor’s office inviting me to meet him soonest. Brown not only asked me to stay on as schools minister, but spoke approvingly, and with insight, about the very reform strategy and programme that had been carried through in the teeth of Treasury opposition for the previous six years. “I come with a policy, and I wouldn’t want to stay unless you wish me to carry on with it,” I said. “I know, and that’s what I want,” he replied without missing a beat.
We went on to discuss the substance of the academies programme and other ongoing education reforms with no disagreement whatever. Thereafter I found him entirely supportive, we developed a strong mutual respect and dialogue, and – astonishment again – I ended up in his cabinet, following agreement with him on taking forward another bold and controversial reform plan, this time high-speed rail at the Department for Transport.
Having had this experience, I entirely endorse Richards’s argument that to characterise Brown as “anti-” and Blair as “pro-” reform is to describe them inadequately. Brown always had a greater concern than Blair to appease the anti-reform left of the Labour coalition. But, for all Blair’s New Labour rhetorical fireworks, he, too, was no mean coalition-builder with the left on everything except Iraq, as John Prescott’s 13 years as his immoveable deputy bear testament. Even where there was a clear TB-GB “pro-” and “anti-” reform argument, as in the lengthy debate between them about whether the UK should join the eurozone, the best case was not always on Blair’s side.
So why, before 2007, did Brown become so obstructive, and relations between them become so bad? I don’t find this hard to explain, and my explanation is broadly similar to that of Richards. It was largely a matter of political ambition and calculation, a cause of discord as old as politics, and one which has never required ideology as motive. Brown always thought he should have been leader of the party first, and would have done the job better. He craved an early succession, fearing that delay might deny him the crown. After 2001, when he saw that the throne was within his grasp, he reached for almost any weapon to hand (although, significantly, not Iraq) to bring it his way.
And yet, in one critical respect, Brown miscalculated. He constantly underestimated Blair’s resilience and will to power. He mistook an easygoing temperament for lack of drive and purpose, and overly disdained as superficial the political arts – charisma, rhetoric, suasion – that made Blair so formidable, not least on the rebound. Nevertheless, I don’t claim this is a complete explanation. Between 2002 and 2004 Brown could easily have brought Blair down over Iraq, and yet, over many months and many crises, he never did so although (unlike Blair) he was never enamoured of George W Bush and the Washington neocons.
Richards is not especially illuminating on why Brown failed to take this surest route to power. He insists the explanation is straightforward – “Brown supported the war”. He also says, however, that Brown “became convinced that Blair had become dangerously delusional, on a crusade for the sake of being on crusades” – which is a huge qualification of “straightforward” support for the war policy, allowing him more than enough space for a coup, had he chosen to launch one.
I am not quite sure of the explanation myself. But if you think that enough has been written on Blair-Brown, I fear that John Stuart Mill’s dictum applies: “On all great subjects, there is always something more to be said.”