The brutal truth about politics is that a whole career can often be telescoped into a single defining event. The judgement of history can be particularly cruel on unlucky Prime Ministers. Ted Heath’s reputation is dominated by the 1972 miners’ strike, Jim Callaghan is synonymous with the “winter of discontent” and Anthony Eden, perhaps the most ill-starred of all post-war PMs, will be forever associated with a single word: “Suez”. All those years of vaulting ambition, grinding thankless work and genuine public service reduced, in the end, to those two damning syllables.
And how thin sometimes is that line between success and failure. Who remembers John Major for his remarkable 1992 election victory rather that the crushing 1997 defeat? Who remembers his role in the Northern Ireland peace process or the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War? Yet who can forget Black Wednesday or the “sleaze” that engulfed his government?
At the same time, great reforming governments can sometimes be associated with a single symbolic legacy: the National Health Service in the case of Attlee’s post-war government or the Open University in the case of Harold Wilson 1960s administration.
Some politicians defy sweeping judgement. What, for instance is the defining or moment of Margaret Thatcher’s career: crushing the 1984 Miners’ Strike? The Poll Tax? The sale of council houses? Privatisation? The Channel Tunnel?. Tony Blair may prove to be just such a complex figure. Will he be forever associated with the catastrophe of Iraq or the hope of the Good Friday Agreement? Will his domestic policy be symbolized by the hundreds of gleaming new schools and hospitals built in the past decade or the vast public debt that made it possible?
Events already dealt a bitter blow to the present Prime Minister. Whatever his failings, many of the people now carping the loudest in Britain enjoyed the fruits of his stewardship of the economy for over a decade. It was a widespread view that he was Britain’s most successful post-war Chancellor by some distance. Until the sky fell in. There is now a tendency among commentators to write off Gordon Brown, something his political opponents inside and outside the Labour Party have long learned never to do. The British public may have grown weary of the Labour Party but it has not yet learned to completely trust the Conservatives, let alone love them. There is still time for him to claw back the lead the Tories have built up since the recession has started to bite. But many in the parliamentary Labour Party, if not the Cabinet itself, believe the task to be beyond them.
It is likely that when the history of these times is written, the years 1997 to 2010 will be described as the Blair-Brown years. New Labour was always as much, if not more, Gordon Brown’s creation as Tony Blair’s. The fate of the two men will be forever yoked together whenever turn of the 21
So where, then, is New Labour’s legacy? Where are the institutions or the great public monuments to the twin political monoliths of our time: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown? They do not have an equivalent of the National Health Service, the Open University, the Channel Tunnel. If Gordon Brown ever had a big idea no one remembers what it was supposed to be. For a while, back in those dreamy summer days of 2007, when the world was young and the new Prime Minister was un-flash Gordon, it looked like the idea might be wholesale constitutional reform: a new compact with the British people built around a bill of rights and reform of our ancient political institutions. The concept of Britishness featured for a while, until his concept of “British jobs for British workers” turned toxic.
Politicians as steeped in the history of their profession as Gordon Brown know it is always unwise to talk about legacies in advance. To do so would be to suggest that this government is already finished. But that should not stop him preparing for it. I am told by senior Labour Party figures that there is a deep nervousness about mentioning “legacy issues” around the Prime Minister at the moment, although Downing Street will categorically deny this when asked.
Brown should take a close look at the Open University and what it did for the reputation of Harold Wilson’s government. This vastly popular institution is now recognized as one of the top ten universities in the country with 50,000 employers sponsoring their staff to enroll on courses. Forty years on from being described as “blithering nonsense” by one Tory sceptic, it is Europe’s largest provider of business management courses.
The point is that although the OU was first envisioned as a “University of the Air” (because it would be delivered by television) in the early 1960s, it was only given final approval towards the end of the Wilson government with staff beginning work in 1969. Its first students started in 1970, under Heath’s Conservative government. But the concept was already embedded and would forever be associated with Wilson and his Arts minister Jennie Lee.
Gordon has one last chance to have a big idea, to embed a legacy robust enough to survive into the next decade, even if the unthinkable happens and the Tories win the next election. The “Global New Deal” is a brave attempt at a wider vision, but it is difficult to imagine how he will deliver on that by spring of next year, the most likely date for a general election. All political attention is now focused on two events: the G20 summit at the beginning of April attended by Barack Obama and the budget later that month. From then on in, the country will effectively be in a lengthy election campaign, by which time it will be too late for any new ideas.