Historical Reflections: The Brown Era

By Senior Campaign Agent Will Fawcett

Gordon Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister was short yet tumultuous. A decade of being Tony Blair’s right hand man as Chancellor had seen unprecedented growth and a strong economy. But, it all came crashing down within a year of entering Number 10 with the advent of the 2008 financial crash and the global recession that followed. Here we learn how Brown and his Cabinet negotiated the most precarious economic landscape, ultimately saving Britain from financial ruin. However, at what cost to him and the Labour party?

Background

Gordon Brown was already firmly accustomed to Downing Street and the workings of government since Labour’s landslide win at the 1997 elections. Over the course of 10 years, he oversaw Britain’s budget and expenditure with a considerable degree of autonomy granted to him by Blair. After winning 3 successive elections, Blair finally, albeit rather belatedly, stood aside as Prime Minister and watched his colleague take his place, honouring a commitment made by the two men back in 1994 following the death of John Smith – a deal denied by both for years. The Scotsman had been an MP since 1983, and espoused a range of positive, free-market based policies as MP and eventually as Chancellor, in contrast to the old-style state socialism of the Labour Party, something he and Blair hastily disposed of as they entered government.

Brown’s relationship with Blair grew strained in the fallout of the disastrous Iraq War, proved by the poor showing in the 2006 local elections. Brown, who only until after leaving office recognised the recklessness of deposing Saddam Hussein, was markedly more cautious in his approach to the EU, having been a large influence in preventing Britain from adopting the Euro. At the time of the amicable changeover in 2007, many in Britain were relieved to see a new face in Number 10.

In support of Brown

Having won an uncontested leadership contest in June 2007 to replace Blair, Gordon Brown pursued a sensible and contained policy of putting British interests first, reinvigorating a battle against poverty and making the NHS a priority. His ambitions were short lived however, as decades of deregulation, reckless financial speculation and economic boom culminated in a gigantic bust across the world, sending the markets into freefall in late 2007 and consolidating the following year.

It is hard to envision anyone relishing the top job during the worst global financial crisis since the 1930s, and the circumstances were ultimately very unfortunate and out of the hands for Brown and his Cabinet. However, in view of the situation, Labour dealt with the economic freefall sensibly and avoided dangerous knee-jerk economic policies, introducing a crucial £500 billion bank rescue package in late 2008. Although Britain was hit harder than most Western nations, Brown and his Chancellor, Alistair Darling, kept banks such as Northern Rock and the Royal Bank of Scotland afloat, and ultimately sustained the economy despite fierce criticism from the Conservative opposition.

Aside from the economic climate that tarnished almost the entirety of Brown’s premiership, Gordon Brown introduced further measures to protect those on minimum wage and lower-income families.

In education, he introduced compulsory Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) for children and passed the Education and Skills Act 2008 that raised the minimum age a person can leave full-time education to 18.

Although a supporter of the Iraq War at the time, Brown supported the launch of the Iraq Inquiry in 2009 and argued that he had learnt his mistakes from the war. In Foreign Policy, Brown subtly attempted to distance Britain from the “shoulder to shoulder” stance of Tony Blair, yet remained firmly committed to the Bush and Obama administrations. Brown may have maintained the “special relationship” revered by his predecessor but oversaw the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, to the relief of much of the British public.

In Northern Ireland, the Brown government was responsible for devolving matters of policing and justice to the country’s power-sharing assembly, avoiding the threats to re-impose direct rule from London.

Brown’s tortuous time in office left his Cabinet exhausted and ended with the famous remark left by the outgoing Treasury that ‘I’m afraid there is no money’, but it could be argued he made the best out of an extraordinarily bad situation, one he and his colleagues in Whitehall had little control over. Despite a noble manifesto with much of the same domestic social policies to help lower-income families, he was unable to convince the British public to choose Labour and struggled to respond to the scathing criticism of Cameron and Clegg in the televised debates.

He humbly resigned after learning that the public had lost faith in the Labour party, and this paved the way for a new, fresh coalition of the Conservatives and Lib Dems to repair Britain’s economy.

In opposition to Brown

Sandwiched between a decade of Tony Blair and the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, it is hard to decipher what positive impact Gordon Brown had, if any at all. His premiership was as much about survival as it was about demonstrating incompetence, and this showed in all policy areas.

The Brown government’s efforts to reinvigorate the economy failed disastrously, and led to a budget deficit of 6.9% of GDP by the time the country went to the polls in 2010 (it was hovering at around 1% in 2007), and provided much of the ammunition that David Cameron and Nick Clegg used in their respective electoral campaigns. The government was forced to borrow tremendous amounts of money to keep the economy from collapse, and the UK’s debt shot up from just under 40% of GDP in 2008 to just under 70% of GDP in 2010.

The fallout from the recession among other factors has seen UK total debt as a percentage of GDP rise to just shy of 90% in 2017. Interest Rates were also reduced to a new low of 0.5%, down from 5.75% two years before. Despite Brown’s manifesto pledges that he hoped would see him re-elected, the economic arguments used against him by his Conservative and Liberal detractors were enough to see Labour suffer their heaviest losses of seats in an election since 1931.

Brown’s government hit another brick wall a year after the financial crisis took hold: the MP’s expenses scandal in 2009. Brown was later forced to apologise on behalf of “all politicians” for the ludicrous expenses claims that had been made, particularly relating to second homes in the capital. The impact of the scandal led to further anger and distrust not just to the government, but the whole political class as a whole. Numerous parliamentarians and peers were suspended or jailed as a result.

On legislation, the Brown government was somewhat absent on any key pieces of legislation that would have a profoundly positive impact. When legislation did pass, it was often condemned, such as the bill to reclassify Cannabis as a Class B drug, in direct contradiction of the advice given by the UK’s main drugs body.

On Europe, Brown distanced himself from Blair’s Europhilic policy and had previously pledged along with the 2005 Labour manifesto to hold a referendum on the new EU Constitution. When the Treaty of Lisbon was drawn up, many in parliament desired a public referendum to ratify the document, as France and the Netherlands had done in 2005 with the Constitution (and rejected it). Brown dismissed these calls, believing a referendum on the Treaty would have been too complicated. In hindsight, Brown missed a major opportunity to quieten the Eurosceptic camp and prevent further EU integration that would give the then small minority of Eurosceptics a bigger voice.

Brown was also subject to several plots to replace him, particularly at the height of the financial crisis as Brown’s approval ratings plummeted. Dubbed the ‘Lancashire plot’, many MPs within the Labour party openly called for his resignation, and the party descended into turmoil, only relieved when government ministers such as Jacqui Smith, Ed Balls and Jack Straw reaffirmed their support for Brown.

The penultimate blow for Gordon Brown were the local and EU elections of 2009. With voter apathy at a historical high, only 33% voted in the EU elections, with Labour finishing well behind the Conservatives and UKIP. In the local elections, the party appeared in disarray, struggling to find candidates and when they did, there were huge swings away from Labour to smaller parties who were riding on the back of the MP’s expenses scandal.

Finally, Gordon Brown demonstrated his final flaw in the elections of 2010: his charisma, or lack thereof. The Scotsman has since admitted he was the wrong person to lead and inspire the young and disenfranchised in the age of social media, whereas many believed Cameron and Clegg offered a much stronger, persuasive message. Although no party gained a majority in 2010, Labour lost theirs and finished second to the Conservatives, down 91 seats from 2005.

As a result, Brown announced his resignation on May 11 and the following day, the new coalition ended 13 years of Labour rule, consigning the Brown era to the history books - an unfortunate and unsuccessful premiership.

Sources and Further Reading:

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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