Gordon Brown decentralising power. Yesterday.
I may have mentioned this before (a few dozen times) but it is the case that the acquisition of a reputation is unutterably important for a politician. Gordon Brown has a conflicting reputation. On the one hand he is dour, unsmiling, sociopathic and Scottish, with the tortured body language of the terminally ill-at-ease. On the other he is the consummate political operator: brutally effective in debate, ruthlessly prudent with the country’s finances and an incomparable destroyer of opponents. I, as should be obvious, tend towards the former interpretation but the latter is powerful. The soubriquet “The Iron Chancellor” has been worn with pride (more evidence of the strikingly ahistorical nature of this administration, Bismarck was after all an autocratic, militaristic old bastard with all the charm of a pickelhauser) and has been a very effective ‘brand’. For evidence of his strategic genius, the ‘independence of the Bank of England’ has always been held up as his masterstroke – proof that he wasn’t a centralising old socialist.
Well, I’m not so very sure. Remember that the status quo was that the Chancellor sat on the Committee and had the final say on any decision regarding interest rates, but that impartial minutes of the meeting were kept and published. If the Chancellor disagreed with his Committee his reasons would be public, and could be challenged in the house. As now, the mission of the Bank was to control inflation. This was a key change of tack from the days before Black Wednesday, when controlling exchange rates was the central aim of monetary policy. If you want to look at where Britain’s recovery started, it was the moment that an exchange rate policy was discarded amid the ruins of John Major’s economic policy. For Brown to absent himself from discussions on interest rates (and incidentally transfer accountability for such decisions from himself to the Bank – not subject to such intense parliamentary scrutiny) was not to alter the priorities of the Bank, nor the essential balance of decision-making (I would be fascinated to know how often Ken Clarke disregarded the advice of the Committee, and astonished if it happened often, if ever). It was, instead, to offer the appearance of sweeping decentralisation without any practical exchange of power. Brown’s ‘great masterstroke’ was, on this reading, little more than the creation of an image.
As with that, as with the recent ‘offer’ of a job to Paddy Ashdown. The image sought was that of openness, unconventional politics and an excitingly new approach. See, Brown isn’t some emotionally retarded shut-in solely reliant on the whisperings of acolytes: he’s gone out on a limb to the Liberal Democrats! If he’d wanted, really wanted, a form of coalition with the Lib Dems, he knows what he needs to offer: some form of PR. Without that, there can be no formal coalition. Brown knows this. When Campbell eventually rejected the approach, Brown subsequently went behind his back and offered Ashdown a cabinet seat. If Brown could succeed in tempting away big noises from the other parties it makes him look outward looking and dynamic – not leader of a party on the back foot. But Northern Ireland was never going to be enough to tempt Ashdown to betray his party – especially not since the recent peace deal made it about as hands-on a role as the Secretary of State for Wales. If Brown had really wanted Ashdown, he had to offer Defence – or even Foreign Secretary. The reason he didn’t, is that he didn’t want Ashdown to accept. That way Brown gets credit for ‘trying’, Campbell is weakened further, making a new Lib Dem leader more likely – itself a development likely to hurt Cameron more than Brown (unless Simon Hughes gets it ho ho ho) and Polly Toynbee gets to waffle moistly
about her fabulous dreamy Viking.
All in all, it doesn't really square with his claim to be putting poltiics beyond spin: everything Brown does has been spun since about 1994. The fact that he is still seen as a grumpy, vindictive, charmless old bastard suggests that this aspect of his nature is simply unspinnable. What a lovely few years we have in store.