Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Browning of America

The Browning of America

Two cheers and a 'Gordon who?' from the US for Britain's new prime minister.
Ian Williams

Full text of Guardian Comment is Free piece
June 27, 2007 4:10 PM

I greet the coronation of Gordon Brown not so much with joy and rapture unforeseen, but nonetheless with a restrained approbation.

Lots of my American friends and colleagues, a group that almost by definition is fairly savvy about foreign politics, have asked, "who is Gordon Brown?" What they mean is: "what does he stand for?"

For the reporters who went out to do vox pops on the streets of Manhattan, it was a literal question that produced a blizzard of dandruff as people scratched their heads in puzzlement. The incoming British Prime Minister is totally unknown to most citizens of the country with which he will almost certainly be preaching a special relationship. The Blue half of American will remember his fawning on Bush and wonder whether he could be any worse than Blair, while the Red half will wonder how perfidious Albion could replace such a staunch friend of America with a dour unknown Scot with so little pizzazz.

That is a shame, since Brown is the one who quietly and methodically has been financing and implementing the programmes that have made the Labour government attractive enough for British voters to support, despite the Blairish foreign forays and the attempts to treat George Orwell's 1984 as a desirable social programme rather than a dystopic novel.

Regardless of Tony Blair's best efforts at convergence, the political systems of the two countries are widely different even if they are conducted in the same language. Gordon Brown was elected, admittedly unopposed, by his party, and once Blair had been persuaded it was time to take a walk, it was a fairly short and bloodless process. But the British public knew who he was, as did the Labour Party.

In the US the presidential primaries drag on over a year and are effectively restricted to those who are very rich, or are connected enough to the very rich, to buy airtime. Of course, in some ways, that makes it politically less exclusive than British politics. Small-state governors, city mayors and passing millionaires can all put their hat in the ring. The president can be of the opposite party to the legislature, and several, Reagan, Carter, Clinton and Bush the latest, could all take office with no experience in congress at all, and indeed little at national, let alone international politics.

In Britain, the Prime Minister is elected by the majority party in parliament of which he has to be a member, and the constituency, theoretically at least, includes not only Members of Parliament but also ordinary party members and members of the affiliated organizations, like the unions.

So Gordon Brown did not have to be wealthy to get to No 10 Downing Street. But he did have to have the trust of the membership. To ensure unopposed re-election he played on his credentials as a solid party member, determined to rebuild an organization that his predecessor had reduced to a Clintonesque dropping off point for big cheques.

His credentials in the party are much more solid than the flibbertigibbet Blair. Not only did he write a biography of prewar left Labour icon James Maxton he also co-edited the "Red Paper on Scotland," thirty years ago which for American readers refers to Red as in Red Flag, not Republican.

But one of the things that is worth pointing out is the impact of the period in which he entered politics on his economic thinking. Harold Wilson's Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s were bedeviled at every turn by a hostile financial system, where international bankers imposed conditions on their social and economic policies which they enforced with runs on the currency and the usual panoply of measures that were later wielded against recalcitrant third world states.

Brown's cautious financial approach has led to fiscal and economic success unprecedented in post-war British governments - the much-vaunted growth rates of Margaret Thatcher were largely recouping the damage she did when she trashed British industry after taking office. Many of his measures, including the independence of the Bank of England, were designed to stroke the bankers and keep them purring while in effect maintaining public spending.

As chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown had far more power in Britain than any comparable figure in American finance. Despite the cosmetic independence of the Bank of England, he combined the prerequisites of the Federal Reserve chair with those of the Treasury secretary, and did not really have to share control of the budget with parliament.

The reductions in unemployment, the increase in the minimum wage, increase in health and education spending are not be sneezed at, either in the context of Thatcher's Britain, nor for that matter compared with the United States.

Which brings us to the question: Is he good for America? It is often forgotten that it was a Labour icon, Ernest Bevin, who invented Nato and the present form of the "special relationship." Harold Wilson the Prime Minister in the 1960s and 1970s wrestled with keeping LBJ happy - without sending troops to Vietnam, which would have made his party and electorate very unhappy.

Brown, a frequent sojourner in Cape Cod, is certainly an admirer of the United States. One can legitimately doubt that he would have been so effusive about the present president if he had been premier hitherto. Certainly the fate of Blair will keep the brakes on Brown's enthusiasm for supporting Washington's wilder adventures, but he will almost certainly maintain, albeit in more restrained form, the myth of the special relationship.

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