Gordon Brown

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The final years of Tony Blair’s time as prime minister were dominated by two matters: public opposition to his invasion of Iraq and a very public breakdown in relationship with his next door neighbour in Downing Street, Gordon Brown. A key element of Brown’s dissatisfaction was an apparent promise before Blair was elected leader that he would stand aside after a while to allow Brown to be prime minister. Blair was someone fascinated with his historical legacy and he was probably unwilling to allow Brown to be one noted in the history books as being elected on 05/05/05. So Blair stood in that election won despite the unpopularity of the Iraq War, but with a promise to stand down before the next general election.

When Blair stood down Brown was unopposed and became prime minister in June 2007. It was not a happy time to assume power as he had to deal with two financial crises: one global and one domestic. When the world’s banking systems collapsed and brought down the world’s economies in 2008 Brown took the lead as the world leader who had spent a decade as a finance minister. He encouraged much of the world to see the solution in propping up the failing banks and the largest businesses. He saw himself as having saved the world economy from collapse, but with little improvement in many economies a decade later there are many who consider that the banks should have been allowed to fail as they brought the disaster on themselves. The domestic financial crisis was the revelations by the Telegraph about the abuse of the parliamentary expenses system by many MPs, including some of Brown’s cabinet. Both of those crises had an effect that lasted through to the 2016 referendum: the financial crisis hit those not living in London the hardest and the expenses scandal destroyed what little trust the British public had in MPs. Brown lost the only general election he fought as leader, although he came very close to moving into a Labour Liberal Democrat coalition. Indeed he was let down not by Labour’s performance, but because the Liberal Democrats had not won sufficient seats to make the coalition mathematics work. In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum he stayed out of the debate, allowing space for his former chancellor Alistair Darling, who was leading the Better Together pro union campaign. That campaign was faltering and at one stage polls suggested that the country might vote for independence, so Brown entered the fray and his barn storming speeches are credited with turning many doubters back to the No side. In the vote Scotland voted overwhelmingly to reject independence. He retired from parliament at the 2015 general election, so he not part of the carnage when Labour was reduced to just one Westminster MP.

David Cameron hogged the early limelight in the 2016 European Union referendum on the basis of having persuaded Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom and so well placed to persuade the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union. When the polling figures were less positive for the remain side than expected the campaign turned to Brown, the politician who really persuaded Scotland to reject independence.

Brown’s interventions at times sounded like his Scottish independence speeches and this time the magic did not work. Those who felt left behind by globalisation were probably uninterested in the views of the man who saw himself as having saved globalisation so much that he wrote a book about it. Nor were they inclined to listen to the pleas of the prime minister who presided other the expenses scandal that destroyed the public’s trust in what politicians had to say. The magic worked in the independence referendum because the key question was over what currency an independent Scotland would use and Brown’s main legacy as chancellor was keeping the United Kingdom out of the Euro. He had no such cache to bring to the European Union debate, where there was a mood in the air to destroy the globalised establishment that Brown had helped to build.

It did not help that Brown descended into the same scaremongering hyperbole of most remain campaigners. His particular contribution was the appeal to the European Union as the bringer of peace to a warring Europe and mentioning a past conflict with nations including Russia. It might be true that there has been no war between European Union members in its 70 year existence, but to make that claim without reference to the mass militarisation prior to the fall of communism or the present troubles along the border with Russia is disingenuous. As with much of the arguments from politicians on both sides of the referendum debate the facts were technically correct, but they were the wrong facts.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved

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