Tuesday 27 March 2007

The right way to end ten years of grief

Two quotations keep running through my head. The first is from Wodehouse: “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.” The other is by Churchill: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. He was speaking of Russia, of course, but it also seems a perfect description of that archetypal aggrieved Scot (and alleged Stalinist) who believes that he is finally about to become our Prime Minister.

Finding myself unexpectedly under-employed at the weekend, I devoted it to reading a big, thick biography of Gordon Brown. I hoped that it would explain what drives this obsessive and unusually secretive politician. It didn’t. I also wanted to understand why so many Labour colleagues, former civil servants and media commentators are queuing up to make disobliging remarks about him, emphasising his unsuitability for the high office he has yearned to occupy for well over a decade.

Tory columnists write gloomily about the impending “Brown terror”. But what on earth could he do to us as Prime Minister that has been beyond him in the last ten years, during which he has exercised almost complete control of every aspect of domestic policy?

So what, exactly, has he done? First and foremost, kept the UK economy vaguely on track and avoided the crisis that has been the hallmark of every previous Labour government. Given the Bank of England its independence. Single-handedly created an enormous crisis in the private pensions sector through his £5 billion per annum raid on their funds, which has also adversely affected the performance of the stock market. And vastly complicated the tax and benefits system, at least until last week’s belated nod towards simplification.

He has raised huge sums in additional taxes and spent them on the public services, while doing his utmost to block their reform. In so doing, he has consistently ducked the $64,000 question: if the answer to our health problems is simply chucking ever more money at the NHS, how come Scotland (which already spends substantially more per capita, thanks to the Barnett formula) ends up with lower life expectancies than England?

Depending on which set of figures one believes, he has added between 700,000 and 900,000 people to the public sector payroll and converted an additional six million families (or, in Treasury-speak, almost 20 million people) into State dependants through his cherished tax credits system. This is classic Brown: fiendishly complicated for the applicants, hellishly expensive to administer, and horribly prone to errors and outright fraud.

If, at root, the man is an old-fashioned, redistributive socialist, why has he based his whole system on something that was anathema to the Labourites of my youth: the means test?

His one great claim to heroism is perhaps this: keeping Britain out of the euro. But did he really do it out of genuine economic concerns or Atlanticist sympathies? Or simply to spite Tony Blair, who was determined to secure his place in history by abolishing the pound?

It is hard to see such a famously shy, disorganised, irascible, indecisive and undiplomatic man as a happy or effective Prime Minister, or to understand why he has spent so many years plotting and scheming to secure the prize. After all that, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh if it were now to be snatched away from him, so far beyond the eleventh hour.

Personally, I think that he and Blair are inseparable, like conjoined twins. People write about Brown as a figure from Shakespearean tragedy, but I see him more as a character from a Conan Doyle mystery. Surely the right ending would be for the pair of them to depart the scene together, like Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls? Though in the interests of cutting carbon emissions, maybe a similarly epic tussle could be staged closer to home in the notoriously dangerous waters of the Diana Memorial Fountain?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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