Farewell, Gordon Brown – you weren’t that bad

Neil Clark: Brown should have strung the bankers up from the lamp-posts – it’s what the public wanted

BY Neil Clark LAST UPDATED AT 16:47 ON Tue 11 May 2010

He's been called the worst Prime Minister ever - and that was by a politician from his own party. But was Gordon Brown, who announced that he was stepping down as Labour leader yesterday, really that bad?

The biggest charge made against Brown is that he has left Britain with a record budget deficit, expected to rise to 12 per cent of GDP later this year - the highest in the EU.

But his refusal to make swingeing cuts in public spending during the worst global recession since the Wall Street Crash meant that for millions of ordinary Britons the slump was nowhere near as painful as the recessions in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, when the Conservatives were running the country.

Despite dire predictions when Britain first went into recession, mortgage repossessions never hit the level of 1992, when 75,000 people lost their homes and interest rates hit 15 per cent. Part of that was due to the Prime Minister's refusal to let 'market forces' destroy people's lives. It has been estimated that around 330,000 families have benefited from the various initiatives that Brown introduced to help struggling home-owners.

The Prime Minister's policy - of waiting for economic recovery before wielding the axe on public spending - may have been slated by the opposition and the Tory media, but it undoubtedly has helped save jobs and kept a roof over many people's heads.

Under his premiership, Brown moved his party, ever so slightly, to a more social democratic position. The top rate of income tax was raised to 50 per cent - a significant move away from Blairism. Northern Rock and leading banks were nationalised. His foreign policy tone was softer than his predecessor's: contrast Brown's calls for an immediate ceasefire when Israel invaded Gaza with his predecessor's dismissals of such calls when Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006.

These moves were enough to make Rupert Murdoch's neo-conservative, Tony Blair-adoring media empire turn against him, but not enough to entice former Labour voters, who had grown disillusioned with the rightwards shift of the party under Tony Blair, back into the fold.

Seeing how close Labour still came to victory in this month’s election, it’s tempting to say that with a more media-friendly leader, such as Alan Johnson or Jack Straw, Labour would have won. But had Brown been replaced before the election, would any of his probable successors have done anything differently?

None of the candidates mooted as replacements for Brown have distinct ideological positions. You certainly couldn't say the same about Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Tony Crosland and Denis Healey - the six Labour candidates who set out to replace Harold Wilson when he stepped down in 1976. Back then, the policies the politicians espoused - and not their personalities, or their media image - were decisive.

But in today's neo-liberal, globalist era, where policy parameters are set by international capital and sovereignty-impinging institutions such as the EU and the IMF, politicians have largely been reduced to mere managers. And because the difference between their policies is so small, so the emphasis has shifted on to personality.

That many regard Brown's premiership so negatively has little to do with the man's actual record in office, but owes a lot to the fact that 'Gloomy Gordon', the man famous for having the 'worst smile in the world', was ill-suited to the personality-based politics of today.

True, there were many things he did do wrong: signing the undemocratic Lisbon Treaty, which surrendered even more sovereignty to the EU without a referendum; his failure to renationalise the railways; and his continuation of Britain's military involvement in Afghanistan.

But given the fact that he was given a hospital pass by Tony Blair, who stepped down just when the economic storm clouds were gathering, the claim that Brown was Britain's worst ever Prime Minister is a huge exaggeration.

He was certainly a better PM than his warmongering predecessor, who took us into military conflicts which will make us a target for Islamic militants for many years to come, and John Major, who destroyed Britain's railways. And he also comes out favourably compared to Sir Anthony Eden, who led us into the Suez fiasco and Neville Chamberlain, whose appeasement of Adolf Hitler led to World War 2.

Brown's greatest mistake was to underestimate just how leftwards public opinion had shifted on economic matters during the financial crisis. In 2008-9, people didn't just want speeches denouncing bankers' bonuses, they wanted to see bankers hanging from lamp-posts.

Seeing as he was being savaged by the right-wing media anyway, Brown had nothing to lose by adopting a more openly populist, 'Old' Labour position on the economy. Towards the end of the election campaign he started to do just that, drawing voters' attention in the final televised debate to Tory plans to cut corporation tax on banks and also the inheritance tax of Britain's 3,000 richest families.

But by then, it was all far too late. ·