Tom Bower

Brown has come full circle since 1988

Tom Bower, the Prime Minister’s biographer, says that Gordon’s reinvention as the socialist who can save capitalism is just the latest in a series of convenient masks he has donned

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Tom Bower, the Prime Minister’s biographer, says that Gordon’s reinvention as the socialist who can save capitalism is just the latest in a series of convenient masks he has donned

Gordon Brown would probably prefer to forget his magic moment in the crowded House of Commons exactly 20 years ago, on 1 November 1988. In the midst of a withering attack against Nigel Lawson’s management of the faltering economy, the Labour front bencher pierced the Tory’s façade with deadly accuracy: ‘This is a boom based on credit.’ Labour MPs frenziedly cheered as Brown artfully mocked the forlorn-looking Chancellor for allowing consumption to spiral out of control and for offering consistently wrong forecasts. The Chancellor’s boast about his ‘sound management of the economy,’ scoffed Brown, was worthless. ‘Most of us would say that the proper answer is to keep the forecasts and discard the Chancellor.’ That evening’s newspaper headline intoxicated the aspiring Scotsman: ‘veteran chancellor bloodied by upstart’.

Two days later, Labour MPs voted for their shadow cabinet. Brown’s demolition of Lawson’s boom gave Labour MPs hope. Their new hero promising a socialist Britain, most agreed, was destined to be Labour’s future leader. He came top of the poll. ‘He appears to possess the ultimate political quality of luck,’ wrote one commentator unable to imagine the turmoil before Brown reached 10 Downing Street.

To travel full circle within 20 years from scorning ‘Lawson’s Boom’ to masterminding ‘Brown’s Bust’ is probably unrivalled in modern British history. Just as Thatcher was harmed by her misquoted phrase, ‘there’s no such thing as society’, Brown’s damnation of ‘the age of irresponsibility’ was uttered by a confused socialist psychologically unprepared for his nemesis. Deriding all the warnings of an impending recession, Brown had relied on Alan Greenspan’s assurances that credit fuelling the housing boom was rock solid — and rewarded the chairman of the Federal Bank with a knighthood for his genius. Until the crash, Brown’s crude misunderstanding about derivatives, credit markets and ‘naked short selling’ was concealed by that brilliant propaganda cliché, ‘the Iron Chancellor’. His economic illiteracy would be the stuff of political boredom if Brown did not remain responsible until mid-2010 to save Britain from a slump. Frighteningly, Brown still does not grasp why the collapse of ‘Brown’s Britain’ — the title of Robert Peston’s pastiche published with Brown’s co-operation in 2005 — was inevitable. Unaffordable and ideologically warped, Brown’s vision relied on unsustainable state spending, manipulation of Whitehall and addiction to personal control. Those are precisely the tools he will use over the next months to restore Labour’s re-election chances. Only the state, he will argue, can save the country. His critics will reply that his remedy is poison because the same medicine caused the crisis.

Retreating to Scotland to mull his party’s continuing unpopularity, Brown is searching among his roots for salvation. Reinventing Labour’s ‘philosophy’ became Brown’s cause after 1988 and accelerated after Labour’s defeat in 1992. ‘I must come up with some big ideas,’ he told friends, and concocted New Labour. The ideology never changes, only the salesman’s vocabulary.

The story of Brown’s transformation from Christian socialist to capitalist suggests that his cure for Britain’s plight will be an edging endorsement of the only ideology he admires — state socialism sugared with Biblical aphorisms. Fixated by the sermons uttered from his father’s pulpit, the Scottish creed of collectivism and government interference is embedded in Brown’s soul. Only sophisticated opportunism silenced his affection for the values of Jimmy Maxton, the Scottish Marxist whose life Brown chronicled as a graduate. Twenty years ago, before he brilliantly contrived New Labour’s embrace of capitalism, his ideological colours were brazen.

In 1988, Brown railed against the ‘unfettered market’, cursed Thatcher’s ‘promoting the self-improvement of the poor’ and opposed her ‘weaning of the poor from welfare’. Consumed by ‘the rottenness of Thatcherism’, he wrote Where There Is Greed: Margaret Thatcher and the Betrayal of Britain’s Future. Caustically, he attacked the proposed privatisation of prisons, air traffic control and London Transport as a sinful plot orchestrated by ‘the enthusiasms of an extremist tendency too young to care’. He paraded a ‘vision for the new world’ to replace the Tory’s ‘bleak, gigantic marketplace of self-seekers, each in lonely competition with each other’. Only the state, Brown argued, could save the poor and regulate the markets. Contrast all that with Brown’s speech to the Mansion House last year when he eulogised London’s ‘light-touch regulation’. Now, as Brown exhorts return to regulation, few can identify the Prime Minister’s ideology. His success and survival has been built on astounding flip flops.

Brown’s genius, after his 1988 Commons success, was to ostensibly abandon caring for his old world — Scotland’s uneconomic coal mines and decrepit linoleum factories — and invent a new ideology to secure Labour’s election victory. Holidaying every summer in Cape Cod, he found the political answer from Democrats working with Bill Clinton. ‘We want to offer a hand up, not a handout,’ was Bill Clinton’s memorable soundbite appropriated by Brown to combine socialism with the political necessity of appealing to the middle classes. Regardless of whether Brown actually understood Clinton’s economics, New Labour’s success depended on a perpetual economic boom offering a bit of everything to everyone behind a screen of obfuscation and concealment.

Changing Labour’s gods, Brown calculated, could only be done piecemeal. So, while he criticised the class whose support he was seeking — the capitalists who in 1992 he condemned as ‘doing well out of the recession’ — he disingenuously taxed and borrowed to finance a boom to help his real constituents: the underclasses, state employees, the unemployed and immigrants. To reassure Labour’s own critics of his Thatcherite policies, he punctually reasserted his socialist faith on education, the NHS and the state. His shocking distortions about Laura Spence’s rejected application to Oxford in 2000 ranks among his more benign attempts to reconcile his genuine socialism and his opportunism to keep Labour electable. Now, seeking to save Labour from oblivion in 2010, he will be tempted to return to 1988 and rehash his abuse of ‘free market dogma’. To rely on a socialist to restore healthy capitalism would be foolhardy, but Brown will seek reassuring sentiments to confuse his critics and avoid an obvious trap.

In the coming instalment of the Miraculous Reinvention, Brown will offer new buzz words. We have had ‘prudent’, ‘decisive’, ‘bold’, ‘fairness’ and ‘values’. The money must be on Brown digging out Harold Wilson’s mantra of a ‘new agenda for investment by innovation and modernisation’. In 1992, Brown wrote the Labour manifesto, ‘It’s Time To Get Britain Working Again’. Within that failed prospectus was Brown’s scathing reprimand for the ‘Tory’s trust in simplistic market answers’. A lot of fingernails will be chewed as Brown reworks the vocabulary to represent himself as the socialist who can simultaneously save and control capitalism, jus t as he tried after 1988. A nation imperilled by Brown’s credit boom will soon be hammered by Brown’s socialist cure.

Gordon Brown: Prime Minister by Tom Bower is published by HarperPerennial (£8.99).