Tony Blair is gone at last; I had thought he never would. He stuck on just long enough to become the longest-serving British prime minister. But his term was hardly full of distinction. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister, I had contrasted him to his disadvantage with Blair. Just on account of his fluency and quick wit I would have forecast a more distinguished career for Blair; but somehow in the end he looked no less bedraggled than Vajpayee. In part it was his remit; nowadays it is difficult for a British prime minister to take earthshaking decisions. But in larger part it was due to his hitching his wagon to George W. Bush’s. Bush happens to be America’s most disastrous president since Richard Nixon. Since World War II, it has been British policy to maintain a special relationship with the US — which means following the US lead in foreign policy. But doing that on Iraq brought Blair unending ignominy, which he compounded by being so loquacious and self-righteous about it; he spoke far more in justification of Iraq policy than Bush ever did. In the end, the quality of his that was the most endearing to begin with — his earnestness — turned out to be his greatest liability after he put it to such dubious use in the context of Iraq. It shows the depths of self-delusion in Western powers that they should have made Blair their envoy to the Middle East; I just cannot see him winning the trust of Iran, Syria or the Palestinians.
While Blair stumbled from blunder to blunder, Gordon Brown spent 10 years avoiding mistakes. He did initially make one when he raised corporation tax on insurance companies; he also introduced fees in universities. But after that he attracted little criticism even from the viciously catty British press. It does not terribly like him. It is easy to see why. He is not warm or outgoing — he is a bit of a dour Scotsman. Whereas Blair spouts soundbites all the time, even on memorable occasions Brown comes up with supremely forgettable sentences. He does not have the sense of drama that a good politician should have.
But as chancellor of the exchequer he has been outstandingly competent. I still remember his first budget speech — just about 300 crisp sentences saying exactly what situation he faced and what he was going to do. Its highlight was Brown’s Golden Rule — that budget must be balanced over a trade cycle, deficits in years of low growth being covered by surpluses in boom years. I had contrasted it with Yashwant Sinha’s rambling, pious, hypocritical budget speech, and said that Brown would achieve what he promised and Sinha would not. They both performed according to expectations. Brown inherited a fiscal deficit and a high level of debt. In the initial years, he ran a budget surplus and repaired the fisc; he then used the freedom of manoeuvre he gained thereby to increase expenditure on education and health in later years. Still, he kept such strict fiscal control that in 10 years, he halved inflation to 2 per cent and brought down the long-term interest rate to 4 per cent. Immediately after taking over, he gave the Bank of England independent charge of monetary policy. One of his last decisions was similarly to give independence to the authority in charge of collection of statistics, so that they were generated professionally and with no trace of official influence.
Brown was also good at making sure that the government got good value for its expenditure. With every budget he used to issue a five-year forecast of economic performance. The model which generates this forecast is made publicly available, so anyone can make his own forecasts. The forecasts include those of government revenue and expenditure; by and large they turned out to be realistic. Often he announced tax changes a year or two before they were to become effective. That way, taxpayers had to pay more, but they did not get the unpleasant surprise that they fear most in our country.
The best evidence of Brown’s stewardship was Britain’s average annual growth rate of 2.8 per cent between 1997 and 2006 — against 2 per cent in France, 1.4 per cent in Germany and Italy, and 1 per cent in Japan. In ten successive years, Britain grew faster every year than the Euro area. In 1997, Britain had the lowest income per head in G7; in 2006, it had surpassed every G7 country other than the United States of America. Public investment quintupled from £5 billion to £25 billion over the ten years. While Blair spent 10 years talking away, Brown spent it strengthening the economy.
The job of prime minister is very different from that of chancellor; a good chancellor does not necessarily make a good prime minister. But Brown’s first moves are fascinating. He met Sir Menzies Campbell, the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, and offered him places in the cabinet if he formed an alliance. Such an offer invariably places a minor party in a dilemma. On the one hand, it is tempted by the chance to get into power, which it never would on its own; on the other hand, it fears that the unequal alliance would turn out to be the kiss of death — that the larger party would absorb the smaller one. No wonder Sir Menzies refused; whereupon Brown offered a ministerial position to Lord Ashdown, Sir Menzies’s predecessor as leader of Liberal Democrats. He too declined; but the overtures will continue to cause ripples in the Liberal Democratic Party.
Brown’s cabinet appointments also suggest changes in the policies inherited from Blair. Last summer, Israel launched a raid on Lebanon, ostensibly in pursuit of Hizbullah. In its course, it heavily bombarded and shelled civilian settlements and killed 1,287 people, mostly innocent ones. Blair, as Bush’s poodle, kept silent over this bloodsoaked invasion. David Miliband was the only Labour leader who criticized it. Brown has made him foreign secretary. Mark Malloch Brown was a critic of the occupation of Iraq; he has been made minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations. John Denham, who resigned his ministerial post in 2003 to vote against the US invasion of Iraq, returns to the cabinet. So a change in foreign policy is very much in the offing; it is unlikely that Brown will be Bush’s poodle.
But Brown’s prime concerns will be domestic. Thus he has brought in Sir Ara Darzi, a surgeon with no government experience, into the department of health to work on improving patient care. He had taken Shriti Vadera, an investment banker, into the treasury; now he has given her a peerage and moved her into the department of international development.
Tony Blair’s incessant moralizing had robbed public debate in Britain of substance; for me, he had made Britain boring. Brown brings a different brain to the job, and one of proven competence. Chance plays a considerable role in the performance of politicians, and Brown will not necessarily score as stellar a performance as prime minister as he did as chancellor. But he will be more fun to watch.