Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Blairing the issues: full text

Guardian Comment is Free full text It's not Blair

Gordon Brown's first trip to the US since becoming prime minister highlights how different he is from Tony Blair.
Ian Williams

July 30, 2007 8:00 PM | n

One of the consequences of the federal system is that American politicians have difficulties getting name recognition on a national scale. That is one of the reasons why they have to spend so many millions to get their names imprinted in voters' minds, and why dynastic names do so well in the electoral market place, with Kennedy, Bush and Clinton being good examples.

If so many Americans have difficulty recognising, for example, Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson - despite his distinguished career as congressman, UN ambassador, energy secretary, negotiator with North Korea, and currently governor of New Mexico - it is understandable that Gordon Brown, currently on his first visit to the US since becoming prime minister, has not been on everyone's mind.

But he will be, whether through acts of omission or commission. Despite former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's dictum that "all politics is local", at the moment all politics is Iraq, and Brown's silence on the subject has been masterful. "Don't mention the war!" may not have worked for Basil Fawlty or Kurt Waldheim, but Brown seems to be getting away with it.

When he praises Bush for his efforts in the war on terror, the subtext is that nobody in Britain, least of all the prime minister, is under any illusion that the Iraq invasion was anything to do with 9-11, al-Qaida, or the war on terror. What is more, Brits often do nuance. "My country right or wrong", is not an acceptable posture, and "someone else's country right or wrong", is even less palatable, at least outside the pseudo-patriotic world of the media owned by Rupert Murdoch.

In fact, I was on the Neil Cavuto show on Fox two weeks ago trying to explain that Brown's refusal to use the phrase "War On Terror" did not mean he was soft on terror, but simply somewhat more precise about it than Fox, or the 70% of Americans who at the time of the invasion of Iraq had been nudged into believing that Saddam was behind the World Trade Centre attacks.

Brown is, of course, in no way anti-American, as the newspapers in his Cape Cod holiday spot can testify when they rubbed their hands in anticipation of "Downing Street West" there. But unlike his predecessor, the current prime minister is more nuanced and selective in his enthusiasm for aspects of American society. It is a strain sometimes for his zealous spinners. Comments by Douglas Alexander and Mark Malloch Brown about putting some distance from the US administration went down well in Britain and did not need as many apologists as they ended up with.

Fifteen years ago, a group of expat Labour supporters met Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in Manhattan on one of their visits. It was while John Smith was the leader of the Labour Party so they were still chums. Both, but Blair particularly, were overwhelmed with Bill Clinton. "He wins elections," Blair said as Brown nodded. Tony was not put down by the suggestion that Clinton would put his grandmother on the streets to win votes and campaign financing, and went back home to denounce me as "a wild man from Liverpool badmouthing Bill Clinton," to a meeting of Labour candidates.

Despite a superficial similarity, there was cleary a difference between Blair and Brown, even back then. Blair saw the Labour party as a vehicle for him to get to power just as Clinton saw the Democratic Party. He certainly did not have the feel for its traditions that Brown, a long-time activist and biographer of Jimmy Maxton, the staunchly-left leader of the Independent Labour party, clearly showed. Brown has grown Britain's economy and under his care as chancellor of the exchequer, the pound is beginning to make the declining dollar look like an Albanian Lek.

Blair enthusiasts predicted electoral disaster when their leader's disingenuous smile disappeared off the airwaves. The opposite happened, at least in part because the British electorate was thoroughly disillusioned with a completely subservient policy. This time, there will be no humiliating greetings of "Yo Brown", and the prime minister cannily cut back on the photo ops. He will be going to the United Nations, which he and his party take seriously, to discuss Darfur, global warming and other multilateral issues.

Perhaps he will swap notes there with Ban Ki-moon, the self-professed "slippery eel", on their respective balancing acts: how to put distance from the paraplegic duck president while not totally alienating the administration of the world's only superpower.

No comments: