Emperor in new no-clothes shock!

Only those suffering from the Brown delusion could be surprised to discover that he has not saved New Labour, never mind the world.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

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Here in Britain, it’s déjà vu all over again. According to the ‘Labour in panic’ headlines, government MPs and media supporters are once more distraught because they are trailing in the opinion polls and the public does not believe Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s claim to be dealing with the crisis.

How, bewildered New Labour hacks are asking, has Brown gone so swiftly from the Superman who saved the world to a gormless John Major-style lump wearing his underpants outside his trousers?

It reminds me of how, not so long ago, New Labour was tearing its hair out over how Brown had gone from being the new prime minister who was supposedly going to set right all the wrongs of the Tony Blair years, to being the quickest lame duck PM in British political history.

The answer to both questions is that Brown hasn’t changed at all. He remains a clunking, bean-counting, cowardly politician with contempt for the electorate. All that has happened is that Brown’s sycophants in the party and the media have repeatedly built him up into a fantasy figure, first as the saviour of Labour and British politics, and now as the saviour of the UK and world economy. They have nobody to blame but themselves when their fantasies collide with the harsh real world.

Some might wonder whether these people suffer from some sort of bipolar disorder, such are the swings in their political mood from wildly exaggerated optimism to deep despair. In fact, all they are suffering from is the Brown delusion, a self-inflicted ailment where the sufferer continually hallucinates about the political prowess of the prime minister. Each time it becomes clear that the emperor has no clothes, they run him up another invisible outfit. And like the idiot emperor in that fairy story, nobody shares these delusions more fully than Brown himself.

Investing all hope in the imaginary figure of Brown the superhero has become a way of avoiding asking difficult political questions or taking any action to try to change things oneself. It began before Brown even succeeded Blair as PM in 2007, with a media carnival celebrating in advance how he was going to do everything from revolutionising the constitution to ending the Iraq War and bringing back ‘real Labour values’.

In fact Brown remained the same cautious, politics-free, anti-democratic bank manager and bureaucrat he had been throughout the decade he spent as Blair’s chancellor of the exchequer. For instance, the current focus on allegations of sleaze in the House of Lords might remind us of how little Brown achieved in terms of constitutional reform. Far from doing away with unelected and unaccountable peers, Brown has packed his government with them; the business department alone, at the forefront of dealing with the recession, is run by Lords Mandelson, Myners, Davies and Lady ‘Greenshoots’ Vadera.

The fantasy bubble of the ‘Brown revolution’ burst when he bottled out of calling the General Election he had widely advertised only a few months after taking office, and the emperor’s absence of clothes became evident to (almost) all. Brown’s authority collapsed and the New Labour plotters were calling (well, muttering) for his head.

Yet they never really questioned their own role in spreading the positive illusions about him. So it was that, when the economic crisis bit hard in 2008, the Brown delusion could take hold of the Labour/media collective consciousness once more. Suddenly they were hailing Brown the bank manager as the man to save Britain in its hour of need, sort of Churchill with a calculator. When he launched his desperate, multi-billion pound bailouts of the banks, some went so far as to dream that Brown was starting to introduce a form of state socialism, seizing control of the commanding heights of the economy – rather than pursuing the sort of reactive economic fire-fighting being practised by other well-known socialists such as George W Bush. When Brown made his Freudian slip about having ‘saved the world’ in parliament, the remarkable thing was how many observers seemed prepared to accept there was some truth in that hubristic slip of the tongue.

Brown the crisis-tackling Great Leader went up in the polls somewhat as his opponents floundered in face of the financial crisis. Yet that modest bounce has now disappeared, and it is ‘Labour in panic as Superman falls to earth’ headlines once more. ‘What’s gone wrong again?’ ask bewildered Brown groupies.

Away from the blurred vision brought on by the Brown delusion, nothing has really ‘gone wrong’ any more than it went right six months ago. Brown has been carrying on much as he always does, trying to apply the flimsy political methods of New Labour to a heavyweight economic crisis. His counter-crisis measures look increasingly like action for action’s sake, the latest incarnation of Blair-style initiative-itis, all tactics and no strategy, apparently designed to make headlines more than to make a substantial difference in the economy.

Despite the billion-pound price tags, New Labour’s fiscal stimulus has actually been modest compared to America’s – only a tenth as big, according to one estimate, even when the relative size of the economies is taken into account. Far from saving the world, it appears to have failed even to save the banks, which was what Brown meant to claim credit for in that now-infamous remark.

The aim of the government response has been to try to hold together as much of the collapsing status quo as possible, to keep some air in the credit-inflated bank-dominated economic bubble of the past decade, rather than asking serious questions about the future of the economy and investing in something more substantial. Mandelson, the business secretary, was right to say, when announcing his sort-of bail-out for the car industry this week, that Britain needs ‘less financial engineering and more real engineering’ in the future. But his modest scheme of financial engineering for the car showrooms will do little to address that need.

The brutal truth facing the Brown government is that it is not going to save anything much or solve the recession by blaming everybody else and pretending it can make the pain go away with sticking plasters. If the financial engineering of the ‘boom’ now ended has been discredited, what has the UK economy got to invest in for the future? Unable to face up to the potentially far-reaching implications of the crisis, New Labour is left launching one hasty rescue plan after another: in the words of one anonymous Downing Street adviser, ‘We’ re burning up money, which can’t go on, and the frenetic activity makes us look like headless chickens’.

While the Brown delusion clouds the ability of many in the media and politics to understand what has been going on, the public are left in political limbo. The polls can go up and down in an apparently quite arbitrary fashion, because nobody really believes in any of the parties. With so little behind them, support for New Labour or the Conservatives can fluctuate as fickly as the shakiest of banking shares. But whatever happens from one week to the next, these shallow shifts of allegiance do not change the fact that neither the government nor the opposition has any real clue what they should do.

Perhaps the most pathetic aspect of the Brown delusion is the prime minister’s endless attempts to put himself and his policies on a par with Barack Obama, continually name-checking the popular US president like a schoolboy with a crush. Brown is not the only one with a crush on Obama on this side of the Atlantic, of course; there are signs that disillusioned British politicos are now projecting all of their hopes and dreams on to the US president. As a way to sort out Britain’s crisis of political leadership, that seems even more delusional.

In the meantime it appears that, however bad things might get in the UK retail sector, some will still be in the market for invisible new clothes for the redundant emperor.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume explained why New Labour’s rate cuts are irrelevant. He also argued that parliamentary politics has become a battle of courtly cliques. Elsewehere he looked at the fall of Gordon Brown and argued that despite claims of a Labour revival you can’t revive a corpse. To mark the beginning of Gordon Brown’s reign, Brendan O’Neill listed 10 reasons why Brown is not fit to be Prime Minister. Josie Appleton asked why New Labour stand for nothing. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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