Britain can be fixed-but not by a PM who wants to save the world.
[Daily Telegraph-Wednesday, February 18, 2009]
It is a pity that Gordon Brown has decided to substitute truculence for calm reason when confronted by his critics. For my guess is that when the history of the Brown era is written, he will realise that his defensiveness; his unwillingness to admit a single error; his dishonest effort to paint the Tories as a do-nothing party, despite the fact that some of their ideas were so sound that he filched them, detracted from his real accomplishments.
After all, this is the man who kept Britain out of the euro, membership in which is bringing Spain, Ireland, Italy and other countries to the brink of financial disaster. This is the man who presided over a rather long period of economic growth: had he not boasted that he had eliminated the business cycle, he could claim that the current recession was inevitable in any capitalist system. This is the man who provided the protection Tony Blair needed to consign Clause Four to the dustbin of history. And, yes, this is the man who first sensed that one aspect of any recovery programme would be the recapitalisation of the banks – somehow.
Why, then, is it that, absent a miraculous recovery in the economy and in his own performance, Brown seems doomed to go down to defeat when he finally faces the electorate he has avoided confronting for so long? His experience in America is instructive. Soon after stepping into Tony Blair's shoes, Brown travelled to America to meet George W. Bush. The Prime Minister managed to insult the President by keeping his distance, refusing to reciprocate when praised, and scorning the President's gift of a bomber jacket. All to appease his Left, which was anyhow irritated with him for consorting with the hated Texan warmonger.
Brown then proceeded to try to play it both ways in Iraq. A quick visit to support the gallant troops – during the Tory party conference, by strange coincidence – before ordering them to barracks and leaving the fighting to the Americans and the Iraqis. The electorate knows a stunt when it sees one, the soldiers who were confined to their barracks fumed at having their mission aborted, and we Americans learnt that the Britain of Gordon Brown is not the ally we would want at our backs in a bar-room brawl.
Then there was the Lisbon Treaty. Break an electoral promise to hold a referendum, and sign the unpopular document. But not in the full glare of television lights or within the sound of popping champagne corks; sneak down and sign Britain on as if no one would notice so long as the pomp and ceremony were avoided. Result: furious European allies, already irked at Brown's habit of taking off his headphones at meetings when they were saying their piece, and angry voters who had been denied the promised referendum. Brown's decision to write books that admire the courage of others only highlighted his lack of it.
Which brings us to the economy. This recession will end: there is indeed boom and bust, or with proper reforms, ups and downs. That's why we call it the business cycle. Brown will be remembered for his refusal to accept any responsibility for the prior period of excessive credit and undetected excesses in the financial sector, for his insistence that his blameless management of the economy had been nullified by the Americans, for some ineffectual anti-recession measures such as the cut in VAT, and for the genuine accomplishment of preventing a complete collapse of the banking system.
The chapter still to be written will cover the Britain that will have emerged from the recession. We already know certain things. It will be a country in which faith in the political class is at its nadir. Brown, with a well-deserved reputation for personal probity, and for being in public life in order to accomplish goals we all consider admirable, presides over a cabinet that includes fiddlers who claim payments for expenses that meet the rules, yet not what I believe to be the Prime Minister's own sense of what is right. But, as with the aborted general election, he bottles out of confronting those in his party who do not meet the standards he applies to himself, leaving a sceptical public that wishes a plague on all politicians.
It will also be a country suffering from the Blair-Brown flirtation with a form of multiculturalism that has brought to Britain millions who openly reject its values. Properly managed, immigration adds a healthy zestiness to society, as well as productive workers. But immigration that requires natives to adapt to the customs of the newcomers, rather than the other way around, fragments society and creates social tensions that in their extreme manifestation result in the bombing of the Tube and an attempt to blow up Glasgow airport.
Brown's legacy will also include a bloated public sector that has reduced portions of the country to complete dependence on public-sector jobs, and that will so burden the wealth-creating private sector that economic growth will be stunted for decades to come. Worse still, the nation will have learnt to look to the Government to provide child credits, pay its fuel bills, see to its health care and education, protect it from falling conkers, support it in its old age, provide increasing amounts of its housing, supply millions of jobs – all paid for with its own money, which passes from earners through the Government, which skims enough to support its lawmakers in style long after the voters have retired them from public life.
But cheer up. The dependency culture can be broken, but not by a prime minister who believes it is his destiny to save the world, or who drives David Freud, the man who devised Labour's plan to privatise job training, into the arms of the opposition party. James Purnell is on to something with his welfare-to-work programme, although the extent of the Prime Minister's support is called into question by Freud's defection. The Tories have finally decided that promising to shrink the bloated public sector is not an invitation to another decade in opposition, although they remain sufficiently lacking in self-confidence to feel the need to call Ken Clarke back into service as shadow chancellor.
Politicians such as Vince Cable have proved that if you talk sense to voters they will respect you for it. The contours of the needed reforms of the financial services industries are coming into view. The deformed system of compensation that has distorted economic incentives, and not only in the financial sector, is breathing its last.
Most of all, there is the possibility that the Prime Minister will rise above his redistributionist, class-war predilections, and redirect his formidable intellect to solving the longer-term problems of the country – perhaps after some years spent in the wilderness, from which he might emerge as an elder statesman. Britain would be the winner. As the world might have been had the then-chancellor accepted my half-serious advice to take the open jobs as head of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank
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