Gordon Brown: a guide for newbies

Gordon Brown and Sarah Macaulay enter 10 Downing Street
Most Americans who follow politics think they have a pretty good bead on Tony Blair. His ten years in office and his shoulder-to-shoulder act with George Bush put him in a league with Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher as recognizable prime ministers in the US. I’m regularly surprised by the number of friends I meet who say something on the order of, “I was skeptical about going to war with Iraq but Tony Blair swayed me.” A judgment they all regret, although Blair himself doesn’t seem to.

But what should Americans know about the new prime minister, Gordon Brown? I have no special inside knowledge, but I did live for 27 years in England and I spent a little time involved in Downing Street as an adviser to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in 2001-02. Here’s my take.

Brown lacks Blair’s superb communication skills. He’s not inarticulate, which would be unthinkable for a leading politician in Britain. But he won’t achieve anything with honeyed words. I think his comparative lack of charisma and smoothness will be a success in post-Blair Britain. The old-fashioned nature of Brown after the newness of Blair will be a good thing. Blair sadly lost the trust of many people thanks to the tragic error of Iraq. Brown will restore trust.

While Brown trails Blair in communications, he excels him in intellect. Blair is certainly very bright and has a barrister’s ability to absorb a complex brief quickly and ask pointed questions about it. But Brown is a truly powerful intellect and is known to be a bit of an intellectual bully as well. One of the interesting questions about the Brown premiership will be how he harnesses that intellect to the very different role of leadership. Towering intellect and effective leadership don’t often go together, as Larry Summers might reflect.

On policy it would be utterly unrealistic to expect Brown to be very different from Blair. The two politicians have been close since they both entered Parliament in 1983. Although the tensions between Brown and Blair periodically shook the government, Brown has been the second most powerful person in Britain since the 1997 election and either the originator or the accomplice on most policies.

What will, however, be very different in a Brown premiership is the tone. This isn’t just a question of spin or presentation to my mind. It’s an issue of what priorities the prime minister articulates and the manner in which he sets them out. I think it’s important that in the biography of Brown on the Downing Street website, he sums up his beliefs in this way: “Every child should have the best start in life, that everybody should have the chance of a job, that nobody should be brought up suffering in poverty. I would call them the beliefs that you associate with civilisation and dignity.”

One of the major accomplishments of the Blair premiership was the significant reduction of child poverty in Britain. That was largely the work of Brown. Issues of inequality, equity and social justice will loom large in Brown’s vision for the country. His years as chancellor (roughly equivalent to Treasury secretary plus Office of Management and Budget head) prove his deep commitment to market-based solutions (just as his regular summer holidays on Cape Cod are evidence of his love of America). So Brown will not by any stretch of the imagination turn Britain’s government back into an “old Labour” government. But the rhetoric and focus may well evoke memories of a different political time in Britain.

Another intangible about the Brown premiership is his Scottishness. To Americans that is a meaningless statement. Most Americans can’t hear the difference between the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish, which astounds and amuses people in Britain. But I’ve been struck how many people I know in England express a wariness about Brown precisely because he is Scottish. Even after all those years living there, that’s a prejudice that I just can’t understand at any level. (In a similar vein, as I’ve written before, I don’t sympathize with the Scots cheering on any team that plays England. I do, in a minor way, however, understand it.) Will Brown’s Scottishness hamper his effectiveness? I don’t think so, but it’s a wild card.

I haven’t written at all about the horse race between Brown and Tory leader David Cameron. I’m interested in that, of course, but I’m more interested to see what a Gordon Brown premiership actually does before the next election. I think the odds are high that Brown will be a very successful prime minister who, while not necessarily inspiring a lot of love from the populace, will earn an enormous amount of admiration.

5 thoughts on “Gordon Brown: a guide for newbies

  1. Felix

    So we’ll add Brown to the long list of country leaders who are enormously admired but who aren’t loved. That long, long list. Which I’m sure I have lying around here somewhere… um… can you help me out? I seem to have misplaced it…

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  2. Lance Knobel

    Your comment perhaps explains why I’m not a political pundit. Maybe loved is too strong.

    I do think, however, that politicians like Blair and Clinton, on my side of the street, and Maggie and George W, on the other side, inspire adulation in supporters. You could expand that list — even you!

    Others win trust and, yes, admiration from voters. I think Merkel may be moving into this category. Aznar had a touch of it in Spain. It may be that I’m describing a group of thoroughly competent, technocratic leaders who offer little inspiration but do manage to achieve something constructive. And I think the times are favorable for that approach.

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  3. Lance Knobel

    See also good Scandinavian and Dutch politicians passim. That line may be easy to mock, I know, but many countries would envy their combination of prosperity and social justice.

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