The book has been marketed as a study of what is seen as the toxic relationship between Blair and Brown – but one commentator has put a more positive slant on that -
Under Blair, Brown was insulated from all the aspects of governing that proved so uncomfortable for him – offering a story, controlling the news agenda, communicating to swing voters, asserting clear medium-term ambitions. Freed from the obligation to deal with these issues or foreign policy, Brown was privileged to focus exclusively on domestic policy formation.
Looking back, the dual leadership of Blair and Brown was, inadvertently, a political master-stroke, converting weaknesses into strengths. Compared to the number-crunching Brown, Blair was able to appear ‘Presidential’, even if that quality eventually did for him; compared to Blair, Brown was able to appear authentic and expert at policy-formation. It was the unglamorous, numbers-heavy Chancellor that was wheeled out during the 2005 election campaign to convince voters that Labour had real substance. It was this same unglamorous, numbers-heavy man that voters became so dissatisfied with.
One lesson that emerges from the Brown premiership is that there never was a contradiction between ‘spin’ and ‘substance’, but that the two are interdependent. It is precisely because naked policy does not result in a coherent political narrative that spin becomes necessary. At the same time, political positioning and story-telling is of little use inside the machinery of Whitehall bureaucracies, which makes policy-formation an indispensable part of politic (William Davies).
On the basis that we need first to understand the context before we move to prescription, I wanted to finish this book before reading the various texts which have appeared recently on how a progressive UK government might deal with the massive problems of social, political and economic breakdown which that country now faces. One of the most tantalising of these is Red Tory – how the Left and Right have broken Britain and how we can fix it which now stands on my to-read bookshelf.
According to its author, Phillip Blond, there has been "a wholesale collapse of British culture, virtue and belief". It has led to " increasing fear, lack of trust and abundance of suspicion, long-term increase in violent crime, loneliness, recession, depression, private and public debt, family break-up, divorce, infidelity, bureaucratic and unresponsive public services, dirty hospitals, powerlessness, the rise of racism, excessive paperwork, longer and longer working hours, children who have no parents... seemingly immovable poverty, the permanence of inequality, teenagers with knives, teenagers being knifed, the decline of politeness, aggressive youths, the erosion of our civil liberties and the increase of obsessive surveillance, public authoritarianism, private libertarianism, general pointlessness, political cynicism and a pervading lack of daily joy". Most of this analysis sounds right-wing – but the book does apparently contain a withering indictment of neo-liberal economic policies, a deep concern about inequality and a commitment to social enterprise. Its author was a priest, worked for a period at the left-of-centre Think Tank Demos and then moved recently to set up his own think-tank Respublica.
Thanks to the omnivore website which I have just discovered, you can get a sense of the book’s contents from the various reviews which the site collects. I would particularly recommend the Barnett and Raban reviews. Barnett puts the book in the context of the unsuccessful Third Way of Blair and Clinton.
David Marquand’s Britain since 1918 – the strange career of British democracy is, however, now tempting me.