Often when political leaders, or anyone else for that matter, havebeen waiting and preparing for their big break for more than adecade, they end up flubbing their lines--step forward, Al Gore.But Gordon Brown's first weeks in office have unfolded with fewpolitical hitches. His reshuffled cabinet manages to combineexperience with a sufficient number of fresh faces in topjobs--most notably new Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, the first womanto hold the post--to mark a new start. Brown also invited intogovernment various leading experts from other parties and thepolitically unaligned, thereby helping to shake off his image as amore tribal Labour politician than Tony Blair. At the same time, hedented his reputation as a control freak by announcing proposalsfor restoring authority to Parliament and to the cabinet--oftenbypassed during the Blair years. And he deftly handled his firstmajor crisis--the failed terrorist bombs in London and Glasgow--addressing the country in a competently statesman-like manner. As aresult, the Labour government's ratings now place it ahead of theConservative Party for the first time in more than a year. "It wasalways going to be tricky to provide a sense of a fresh coursewithout repudiating the inheritance of the last ten years, withwhich Gordon has been so intimately associated," one close aidetold me. "But, so far, we have got the balance about right."
So, buoyed by this initial bounce, what difference will Brown maketo British politics and to Britain's international role in the twoyears or so before the next election? The truth is: not much ofone. Blair and Brown-- despite their rows and ego clashes--wereideologically inseparable in the creation of New Labour in theearly '90s. There is no such thing as Brownism. In domestic policy,Brown always has been seen as ideologically to Blair's left. ButBrown was, in fact, the main architect of the centrist economicpolicy of New Labour. He has been a pretty orthodox chancellor ofthe exchequer and only favors intervening in the economy where aclear case of market failure can be proved. And, while it is truethat he has been the force behind most of Labour's recentredistributionist programs, he has also been a friend to the richand entrepreneurial. Brown has sharply cut capital gains taxes onthe sale of companies, and he, more than anyone else, isresponsible for Labour's unwritten pact with London highfinance--under which the government ensures a favorable tax regime(so favorable that the IMF has described Britain as a tax haven)and light regulation in return for the City effectively sustainingthe economy of southeast England, albeit at the cost of sharplyrising inequality.
If there is a more left-wing side to Brown, it may be his skepticismabout some of the pro-choice and pro-competition reforms to publicservices-- in particular health and education--that have beenBlair's domestic policy passion for the past five years. But mostof these steps were popular with voters, so Brown's initiatives inthis area are unlikely to go much beyond an attempt to raise themorale of National Health Service employees who feel battered byrecent changes to the system.
In foreign policy, Brown's room for movement is very limited, buthis thinking is, if anything, more right-wing than Blair's. Hecertainly has been more nationalistic in his rhetoric toward theEuropean Union and blocked Blair's attempt to take Britain into theEU's single currency. True, Brown will be under pressure todemonstrate greater independence from Washington. But Brown is atleast as pro-American as Blair: He has for years vacationed eachsummer on Cape Cod, enjoys strong connections with leadingDemocrats, and is quite conversant in U.S. politics and economics."Gordon is really an American liberal," says Geoff Mulgan, who usedto be an adviser to Brown and now heads the Young Foundation, asocial affairs think tank.
Moreover, Brown is unlikely to confront foreign policy dilemmas assharp as those that forced Blair into difficult positions. WhileBlair was unlucky in his foreign counterparts--George W. Bush,Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder-- Brown will only overlap with abadly weakened Bush for 18 months and will sit alongside thereasonable Angela Merkel and the relatively pro-Anglo-Saxon NicolasSarkozy at the top of the European Union. And so, even though Brownis more skeptical of European integration than his predecessor, hemay actually end up having a better relationship with Europe's mainleaders.
If little of policy substance will change on Brown's watch, whatwill define his premiership? In a word, style--ironic for a man whohas long been derided for his lack of public panache. A strikinglydifferent personality from Blair, the 56-year-old Brown is anuncomfortable, self-conscious, earnest man--in many ways, a typicalproduct of his upbringing as the son of a Church of Scotlandclergyman in the east Scotland town of Kirkcaldy (the hometown ofAdam Smith), just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. He wasacademically precocious, entering Edinburgh University at the ageof 16. There, he took a first in history and plunged into left-wingpolitics. After a brief spell as an academic and a briefer spell asa TV journalist, he was elected to Parliament from his hometown in1983 and then, in the early '90s, played a central role, along withBlair, in creating the new, moderate Labour Party.
Brown has neither Blair's charm nor his way with words, but he is,unusually for a top politician, an intellectual. He is not, ofcourse, rushing to describe himself as such, in a country whereintellectuals are not held in high regard. And certainly, on somecriteria, the tag does not really fit. He is not publicly eloquent,and he is both too much of a magpie about where he collects ideasand too much of a loner to lead a school of thought. But he isclever, extremely well-read, and interested in ideas in a way thatfew, if any, prime ministers have been in the past 100 years.(Though Americans think of Blair as an intellectual, that probablysays more about the degraded standards for intellectual curiosityamong American politicians than it does about Blair. Here inBritain, fairly or not, Blair came to be regarded as a master actorrather than a heavyweight thinker.)
Apart from all his obvious intellectual influences--the ScottishEnlightenment, social democracy, his Church of Scotlandupbringing--Brown is perhaps best identified as a member of therather large group of intellectuals who were once left-wing buthave drifted toward the center. He still holds to some of the corebeliefs of moderate social democracy and still believes in thepower of knowledge and ideas to change the world for the better.But, in everything from economics to personal morality, Brown isnow just as comfortable with thinkers of the center, and even theright, as with those of the left. He has, for example, been veryinfluenced by two leading American conservatives, James Q. Wilsonand Gertrude Himmelfarb. (In the case of Wilson, he found his bookThe Moral Sense a useful argument against the simplicities ofneoliberal individualism; and, in the case of Himmelfarb, he wasdrawn to her defense of the English Enlightenment as opposed to itsFrench version.) Some formerly leftist intellectuals end upbelieving in very little; Brown, at least, has had the moralearnestness and social Christianity of his upbringing to fall backon, although no one really knows whether or not he is a believingChristian.
How will British voters take to this new, more serious style ofpolitics? A decade or two ago, there is little question that itwould have attracted widespread approval. But it is possible thatit will now be associated with a pompous Scottishness contrary tothe raffishness and glib materialism of much of modern England.Moreover, the current British electorate may demand more emotionalempathy than Brown is capable of offering. Being serious andstrategic might no longer be the prime ministerial virtues that theyhave often been for the past 200 years. On the other hand, afterthe perceived sleaze of the later Blair years, perhaps it is notjust Guardian-reading liberals who will find Brown's sober styleappealing. His aides believe that the country is ready for a bitmore moral gravity. We will find out soon enough whether they areright.
By David Goodhart; David Goodhart is the founder and editor of London-based Prospect magazine.