Gordon Brown exists only in an intensive care unit manufactured for him by certain sections of the Scottish media. They keep him politically alive through regular injections of myth.
For example, a myth such as that he had a firm grip of the UK economy and knew what he was doing. Can we once and for all put this idea to bed? The UK economy was substantially weaker after Brown was finished than when he began. The decline in manufacturing (as a proportion of the overall economy) was actually three times faster under Brown than under Thatcher. It was this shift from skilled labour to a low-skill ‘post industrial’ labour market which caused the UK to end up as the second lowest paid economy among advanced economies. Brown was not a visionary but someone who adopted the opinions of whomever was the most powerful lobby (in his case the financial and equity industries – which did most to strip away the manufacturing economy). When there was a global economic shock (the US sub-prime mortgage fiasco) it affected countries in proportion to how robust their economy was. In Europe, Britain was in a gang with Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Ireland (though none of those came out of the crisis anything like as heavily indebted as did the UK). We should have been in the gang of Nordic and Germanic economies which were only mildly affected – or even in a middle category with France and Holland that suffered a bit but not catastrophically.
The profile of the UK economy was less balanced, less productive, lower-paid and much less resilient when Brown was finished than when he began. That is on him.
Another Brown myth is that he had a powerful vision for redistribution. But Gordon Brown does not seem to me ever to have understood the principle of redistribution. Redistribution (in the Atlee sense) was about investing (partly from tax, partly from borrowing) to transform an economy into one which shares national prosperity more evenly through its industrial structure, embedded in a welfare state that helped those who couldn’t find work and with industrial democracy to help workers claim a fairer share of wealth. Brown thought it meant allowing an insane financialised economy to overheat and suppress wages which he could then ‘fix’ because in that permanently-expanding magical economy that doesn’t make or do things he could keep taking tax from profits and handing the cash to the victims of the failing labour market. But no improvement in industrial democracy that would have enabled workers to negotiate a fairer share of national wealth for themselves. Who needs trade unions to balance the economy when you have a ‘genius’? He actually cites greater redistribution going to northern areas as an example of the power of the UK to be good for workers. My eyes water at this madness. In Brown’s world substandard benefit payments flowing to regions of the UK that face endemic poverty because the economy failed is evidence of redistribution? In a growing economy, that is rock-solid evidence of redistribution taking place in the opposite direction.
Brown-style redistribution changed nothing in Britain. It just covered up the collapsing labour market experience of many working people through charity based on an unsustainable speculative boom and it subsidised low-pay employers.
The Brown media allies try to make him simultaneously a world statesman with great judgement and a socialist firebrand fighting for working people. I find my jaw drop when Labour people attack me for supporting independence because ‘it will put pensions at risk and the SNP will give corporations a free tax cut’. Do they think I have no memory? Gordon Brown devastated the pensions industry in the UK by taking a large windfall out of pension funds. He also presided over the most corrupt private pensions industry in Europe and allowed them to get away with frankly robbing their customers. And what did he do with the pension windfall? He cut corporation tax by three pence in the pound. He was 100 per cent with Blair on the Iraq war and threw money at it as Chancellor. He was first to announce the renewal of Trident. On this – as on so much – the reality is that it is very hard indeed to look at Brown’s record and conclude that he had good judgement. He just didn’t.
Then there is the view that Brown is very intelligent indeed. Intelligence is a judgement call so it’s really a matter of opinion. Personally I look in two places for intelligence. Firstly, I like to judge it not in the places where someone agrees with dominant ideology but where they disagree – and have real insight. I’ve never seen this from Gordon Brown who only ever recycled the thoughts of others more powerful than him. The second place I’d look is for content – strip out rhetoric and show me the idea. What was Gordon’s idea? Damned if I know. (Well, I suppose his two big ideas were universal PFI and promoting more and more personal debt to help the retail and banking industries.)
Or the idea that he was a master strategist. Again, this is a matter of judgement. All I can conclude personally is that I never believed that those glory New Labour years were really the result of great campaigning strategy so much as the result of a competent campaign in the face of an incompetent opposition (remember – Labour shed votes by the bucketload at every election). What is for certain is that when Brown had to demonstrate strategic judgement on his own (during say the 2010 campaign over which he was genuinely in charge) it was poor. His sense of timing is abysmal, his use of language is opaque and fails to connect, he demonstrates little empathy or political empathy and his ability to capture the imagination is very limited.
And now? Today he writes in the Guardian about the UK as a powerful force for redistribution. This is out and out fraudulent. In no other part of the UK can I find any trace of this narrative. No-one in the mainstream of media or politics is letting the word ‘redistribute’ slip from their lips. As we surely all know, not a single indicator of the UK’s comparative performance against the other 27 EU nations gives any basis to the claim that the UK is a redistributing society. In fact, the evidence points in the opposite direction.
It is often difficult to tell whether Brown is delusional or dishonest. Either he really believes that the UK is redistributing wealth as a result of an economic model he put in place (delusional) or he is just telling Scotland that in the hope we’re stupid (dishonest). Either he really believes that the UK economy is sound (delusional) or he just wants to distract Scots from the reality of modern Britain (dishonest). Either he thinks he is viewed as a giant of Scottish politics (delusional) or… Actually, this is just plain delusional.
Because in no other part of human civilisation could any of this be taken seriously. The Herald or the Record may run yet another ‘Brown to save the day’ story, but can you imagine that being tried anywhere else in the UK? There he’s generally known as a contender for the UK’s worst Prime Minister ever.
Brown, as a person, is seriously flawed (see Batemen for a good summary). Brown as a politician was a failure. Brown the Scottish media myth is a fraud – as is Brown the socialist.
Neither redistribution nor socialism are on the table for Scots if we vote No. Austerity and benefit cuts are the only things on the table. If Gordon Brown wants to make any amends for the harm his tenure did Scotland, just scrape up the decency to admit this truth.