World

The end of the Blair gang and the politics of yesterday

Jeremy Kinsman on the end of an era in British politics.

If autumn is when nature turns on its best show for Canadians, the long spring is Britain's season to savour.

By the first weekend in May, most flowers are already making their best statement, the baby ducks are too big for predatory seagulls and pub gardens have awarded the first sunburns. Beyond the din of city traffic, a sharp ear will pick up the crack of a cricket bat. It ought to be the best time of the year for an incumbent to call an election. Not this year. Not this incumbent.

The morning after left Britain with David Cameron's Conservatives short of a majority but reaching out to the third-place Liberal Democrats for support, perhaps even for a coalition.

Conservative Leader David Cameron on Friday, May 7, 2010, the morning after. The next British PM? He says he wants to talk with the Liberal Democrats about a formal arrangement for governing. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

But what is absolutely clear is that the long-serving Labour government, with 29 per cent popular support, has been rejected. Gordon Brown's time is done and, with it, an era is ended.

When the end came, it seemed a long way in tone since Brown emerged as the most powerful partner of Tony Blair in the New Labour venture that captured Britain's imagination on another day in May, 13 years ago, ending Labour's long stay in the political wilderness.

To win then, the raucous and undisciplined Labour party had to swallow a deal that the Blair gang — and it was a gang — of communication experts and spin-meisters offered to the foot soldiers: Accept centralized discipline from Blair's office and you can look forward to the rewards, including, in government alone, 120 "ministerial" positions with chauffeurs, casts of flunkies and the heady feeling of being at the top of the heap.

Those in Parliament, on the outside of the inner circle, found they still at least had it made with expense account boondoggles that made voters want to throw up.

Now it's over.

Fading lion

Andrew Rawnsley, the Guardian's political columnist, wrote a book called The End of the Party, an era that began to wind down not long after Blair pushed Britain into what Barack Obama called the "dumb war" in Iraq.

Blair squeaked out a third win in 2005 but was then almost immediately hounded by the big question of when he was finally going to honour the original so-called restaurant deal that he would give Gordon Brown his turn at the top.

Labour's Gordon Brown, entering No. 10, for what is likely one of the last times. (Reuters)

For a decade, Brown had seethed that he hadn't been the one in the PM's chair, since he was never hesitant to show that he was the smartest in any room.

He despised what he thought was the reason: That "Just call me Tony" had the buoyant, optimistic personality who could win over voters whereas Gordon Brown came across as the lecturer who laughed the least and flunked the most students.

Once he took over, in June 2007, Brown had it all — except knowing what to do next.

He was a little like the dog who chases and catches the bus, or our very own Paul Martin whose stellar tenure as finance minister was disfigured by plotting against his three-majority rival in the prime minister's chair.

More importantly, Brown didn't understand that being smart-guy competent, without the gift of at least some human warmth and empathy, doesn't cut it with voters, as we have seen with our own Canadian eyes.

At 59, he had become prematurely old, especially compared to the early forty-something leader the Tories chose in 2005, David Cameron. Or even the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg.

Look out

Some British pundits lament that this was a "shallow" campaign that turned on personalities — like the so-called Clegg-mania — and Brown himself sniffed he would always come up short in such a game (and who could disagree?).

But that assessment isn't fully true. The three parties each put out a "manifesto" of pretty dense policy-wonk material and within days these were all on the booksellers' top-20 lists.

The only trouble with the manifestos is that they weren't honest about the train wreck that the U.K. economy is fast-approaching.

We foreigners who lived in Britain in the last decade, and who weren't part of the self-obsessed and outrageously over-rewarded financial services sector, wondered to each other what the British economy actually consisted of, beyond the fumes of High Street shopping and the wealth effect of residential property bubbles, which gave British consumers the invidious distinction of having the highest personal indebtedness on Earth.

That reality, of course, finally intruded on Gordon Brown's self-image of fiscal super-competence. He has blamed the world financial meltdown for Britain's current plight. But the fact is that much of it was about his stuff and was taking place under his nose.

Today, Britain's budgetary deficit stands at 250 billion pounds, or 13.3 per cent of GDP. By comparison, default-threatened Greece is at 13.6 per cent.

The reliable Institute for Fiscal Studies says that tax hikes are inevitable as well as serious reductions in services.

The notion that there are tens of billions in savings to be had by reducing government inefficiencies is a dreamy myth. And the combined political effect of the deepest cuts in government spending since the 1920s along with tax hikes is that the incoming government is going to be mighty unpopular within a short space of time.

Yesterday's men

As the campaign wore on, Brown tried to scare people by saying the Tories' right-wing ideology wouldn't protect the vulnerable. But Cameron's description of him as a "desperate man" clearly sounded more right.

In any event, the fact is that that there is no ideological solution to governing today. Only a leader who actually wants to be the prime minister of all the people can succeed.

In many places today, like Canada, politics follows the Karl Rove model of splicing and dicing the electorate into sections and then trying to add enough sections to your party's core to get a majority. To hell with the ones whose votes you don't need, like, say, arts or women's groups, or people in the largest cities.

Sound deluded? Narrow political obsessions block any view of the world beyond our shores and are the reason why we can't get past a string of minority governments that demean our broader national values.

If ever a similar situation wasn't good enough for Britain, it is now. In the circumstances, once the partial winner has put back his glass of Mumm's, why would he want to govern in this mess all alone?

Cameron initially said he would try to "go it alone" as a minority leader but has since reached out more directly for Clegg's help. (In return, he probably has to agree to fix Britain's hopelessly gerrymandered electoral system.)

Britain's chickens have come home to roost. But they look mightily like Canadian chickens.

Cameron and Clegg will soon be joined by a new, likely younger Labour leader, probably David Miliband.

They actually make a pretty impressive trio. And, maybe, in trying to turn their country's fortunes around in a reasonably co-operative way, they could show the way for the rest of us, fed up as we are with the negative and bad-tempered slanging by the seemingly self-entitled masterminds who are yesterday's men.