Picture Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Against Brown-nosers

We should hear less from former PMs

In a packed House of Commons, Dr. Vince Cable, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Honourable Member for Strictly Come Dancing, got to his feet. “Mr. Speaker,” he began, fixing his gaze on the broken, hangdog figure of James Gordon Brown, hunched on the government front bench opposite. “Mr. Speaker, the House has noticed the Prime Minister’s remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr. Bean.” It was just one of many humiliations the “Big Clunking Fist” suffered during his three disastrous years spent hurling mobile phones at the walls of Number 10, Downing Street.

Often he saved his opponents the trouble of fashioning wounding mot juste and gamely humiliated himself. Who can forget the time he hauled his sepulchral frame up to the despatch box to declare, to the obvious delight of a puckish David Cameron, “Total spending will continue to rise; and it will be at 0% rise in 2013/14”? 

I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

By any reasonable measure, Gordon Brown was not a good Prime Minister, and he wasn’t a good Chancellor either. Yet moves are currently afoot — amongst the type of people who think The Guardian is the newspaper of record, or Stephen Fry saying “turdle” is the height of wit — to repaint him as an unjustly neglected elder statesman. His most ardent supporters have even flattered him with that most prized Progressive accolade of all: he is, they tell us, an “adult in the room”.

Please, Lord, spare us this nonsense. Brown’s record, in Numbers 10 and 11, is almost uniquely Number 2. 

This is the man who sold Britain’s gold reserve because he thought its value had peaked. The man who killed off final salary private pensions. The man who abolished the 10p tax rate, thus picking the pockets of the very, very poorest. This is the “safe pair of hands” who introduced working tax credits, turning millions into clients of the state, and entrenching low pay. The “steady hand on the tiller” who signed off a succession of outrageous PFI contracts, saddling the UK with hundreds of billions of pounds of debt we’re still servicing today. 

I could go on — and I shall. Brown was one of the key figures in a succession of New Labour administrations that sowed the seeds of our current cultural division; followed George W. Bush — despite the US President’s indifference to British involvement — into a costly, bloody war; and upturned the UK’s constitution to create a politically contested Supreme Court, a House of Lords that replaced unelected hereditaries with unelected sinecurists, and a devolved Scottish Parliament that has decoupled Scottish voters from our two main parties and become a grievance machine for angry nationalists. 

Is this really the CV of a wise old owl?

Unrepentant, Gordon Brown rounded off his Premiership by deliberately spending as much money as possible — partly to try and cling to power; partly to scorch the Earth for his successor — leading Liam Byrne, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to leave his infamous “I’m afraid there is no money” note. Is this really the CV of a wise old owl ready to step in, Mr. Chips-like, and shoulder the burden of responsibility one final time? 

Ironically, Brown even failed the FBPE recalcitrants who form the basis of his current fan group. Had he not blocked us joining the Euro, a giddy Tony Blair would have taken the final great integrationist leap and, stripped of our sovereign currency, Brexit would have become impossible. Perhaps, for this history-changing display of political cowardice — the same hesitant streak that caused him to botch an early election — I should, as a Brexiteer, be thankful. But, looking at it from a Europhile’s perspective, it was stupid.

Which brings us to the issue of “character”. Character, we are told, is what matters these days and the former Honourable Member for Stormclouds and Prudence (remember all that booming, empty rhetoric about “prudence”?) has character. But does he? 

Setting aside his famous temper tantrums, he seemed to spend most of his time in Number 11 plotting to move next door. Once there, his government almost immediately collapsed, consumed by crises — the most serious of which, the 2008 Financial Crisis, revealed how gravely he’d mismanaged the British economy. The Emperor was naked — and, as a country, we were deeply fortunate that the mild mannered and clever Alistair Darling (a much better candidate for the top job) was available to hold out a fig leaf.

There were the weird presentational gaffes too. The sudden rictus grins. The strange forays into popular culture, pretending he was a fan of the Arctic Monkeys or liked to watch “The Eastenders”. There was the revelation, via his comments about pensioner Gillian Duffy, that he regarded a substantial chunk of Labour’s core vote as “bigoted”.

On a personal level, Brown has handled a number of tragedies with dignity — and his ascent to the highest office is in and of itself remarkable. I don’t think he is a bad man — but then, I regard very few politicians, wherever they sit on the political spectrum, as intrinsically malevolent. But, somewhere on his journey, the moody Presbyterian Economist, born in the land of Adam Smith, forgot all his fellow countryman’s most important lessons. There can be no greater example of his inhibited thinking than his current widely-reported proposal that — despite New Labour’s farcical experiments with similar projects — we respond to the energy price spike with an enormous windfall tax on oil firms and a re-nationalisation programme. As the satirist Peter Cook once joked, “I’ve learnt from my mistakes and I feel sure I can repeat them entirely”.

Former Prime Ministers intervening used to be an event. Now it seems to be a weekly occurrence. Be it Brown, Major, Blair or May, they all feel like creatures of a crumbling regime; yesterday’s men and women, trying to frustrate our much needed escape from the post-’97 consensus. 

They say every dog has its day. Gordon Brown has not just had his day but his night, too. I wish him a long and happy retirement. I understand there are still some spots to be filled on Come Dancing.

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