Gordon Brown’s defects are under scrutiny. His critics identify petulance, vanity and vaulting ambition. Much of Westminster, including many Labour MPs, several Cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister, now agrees with Alastair Campbell that Mr Brown is psychologically flawed. But this is a serious underestimate, both of his strengths and of his weaknesses. He is more accurately described in another phrase of Mr Campbell’s: ‘An out-of-control colossus.’
Gordon Brown’s intellectual self-confidence is certainly colossal. This is a man who believes that he is not only a practical politician but the most important political theorist of our times. He thinks that he has created a new socialism, based on a new theory of the state and of the relationship between economic management and society.
This is also a man who believes he can run everything. Since he became Chancellor, he has doubled the size of the Treasury. He has also doubled the size of Tolley’s Tax Guide, the tax accountants’ handbook. In his latest manifesto, published in the Guardian recently, he declared his intention of taking over family policy. If he has his way, there will soon be an equivalent of Tolley for parents, and almost as long. This is a man who believes in control, exercised by him. He has modified the instruction for army recruits — ‘if it moves, salute it; if it doesn’t move, polish it’ — into ‘whatever it is doing, regulate it’. As a result, we have a tax and benefits system of mind-breaking complexity.
There is an irony. Gordon Brown insists that he admires America and that Europe has much to learn from the American economic model. This is extraordinary. No one has so misunderstood the country he purports to admire since Major Thompson. The American model is simple, and would be even more so were it not for the influence of liberals and litigators, which George Bush has not done nearly enough to curb. It is based on one natural advantage and four principles. The natural advantage is abundant land, therefore low housing costs. The principles are: a small state, a federal income tax that barely affects the low paid, minimal welfare provision and a hire-and-fire labour market.
That may explain why Gordon Brown cannot understand America. It is not that he is like the French, repelled by the brutality. He is baffled by the simplicity. This obsession with minutiae and control explains the Chancellor’s growing lack of enthusiasm for Europe. He believes that the day will come when he does control every aspect of British life, so that no one would think of starting a business or a job or even a family without consulting him. But he knows that he would never be able to run Europe in such a way, and that Europe would indeed challenge his power over British life. It is not Europe’s failure to follow the American model which has disillusioned him. It is the knowledge that Europe would never follow the Brown model.
Wise Europe. The Brown model has already cost the UK an extra £171 million a year in public spending, which is more than 50 per cent higher than in 1997. Does anyone think that they are receiving a 5 per cent better service from the state for all that extra money? How many people even feel that it is half a per cent better?
The Colossus has wasted money on a colossal scale. David James, the company doctor commissioned by the Tories to examine government waste, has now identified around £40 billion of relatively straightforward cuts, almost all of them from bureaucracies established since 1997 by Gordon Brown. There has been an enormous transfer of money from the productive sectors of the economy to the unproductive ones.
In the short run, Mr Brown is hurrying the economy into fiscal difficulties. At a stage of the economic cycle when it ought to be diminishing, government borrowing is increasing. In future years the problem will be far greater. The misallocation of resources which Mr Brown has imposed will cut this country’s long-term growth rate. He used to talk about golden rules and prudence. The gold turned out to be fool’s gold and poor Prudence is weeping in a corner, wasting away from neglect.
She and the British economy have fallen victim to Gordon Brown’s intellect, for only a very clever man could have been so megalomaniacally wrong-headed. A lesser man would probably not have had sufficient self-confidence, and even if he had, others would have moved in to prevent him. But Gordon Brown still overawes his colleagues. Even those who regard him as a menace find it hard to stand up to him.
This is because Mr Brown himself has no doubts. He still regards himself as the government’s moral and intellectual engine room. He believes that he is responsible for all the achievements since 1997 and that Tony Blair has contributed nothing of substance. His view of the Brown/Blair relationship resembles an early Bolshevik poster. At the top of the picture, decadent aristocrats loll in luxury. Down below, mighty proletarians toil. Mr Brown thinks it is high time for a revolution.
Oddly enough, Tony Blair disagrees. In the early 1990s he was in awe of Gordon Brown, while also holding him in great affection. After he became Labour leader, he found it increasingly irritating to have to deal with Gordon Brown’s resentments, and probably also felt a little guilty at the way he had usurped a man whom he used to regard as his political older brother. In recent years, however, the guilt has turned to anger, and the latest book, clearly based on extensive briefings from the Brown camp, has increased that anger. Tony Blair now believes that Gordon Brown would be an impossible prime minister. He will do whatever is necessary to ensure that Mr Brown never reaches No. 10. Gordon Brown is now aware of this. He is also aware that he has made a great number of other enemies in the Labour party. He has not by any means given up hope of becoming premier, but the brooding, settled melancholy of those features which so naturally turn to gloom suggests he is realising that he may never achieve his great goal.
There is a further irony. Tony Blair is right about Gordon Brown. His personality defects would make him an impossible prime minister. He would exercise such rigid control over all his ministers that it would be a close-run thing who had a breakdown first: they, through frustration, or he, through overwork. Even apart from his limited political appeal to middle England, Mr Brown would be psychologically incapable of managing a government.
But Gordon Brown is equally right about Tony Blair. Mr Blair will shortly complete eight years in power, and will probably become the first Labour leader to win three elections in a row — and for what? This is a prime minister who is superb at winning power. Once it is won, he has no idea how to use it.
The frivolous socialite and the sweaty proletarian locked in a homicidal embrace: that is the epitome of the Blair government as it approaches the general election. Never before in British history has a government looked so likely to win an election which it so deserves to lose.