Bullying is not the central issue: what matters is how Gordon governs

In the many questions about Gordon Brown’s merits and defects as prime minister, his alleged bullying of his staff and colleagues is peripheral (except of course for those whom he allegedly bullies).  Any bullying is a symptom of a more fundamental problem, not the problem itself.  Whether staff at No. 10 Downing Street have complained to the National Bullying Helpline and whether the Helpline was right to announce that it had received such complaints and whether it now says that none of the complaints mentioned Gordon Brown — all that may entrance and obsess the media, but it’s strictly on the periphery of the periphery of the central question:  are Gordon Brown’s working practices as prime minister conducive to the good government of Britain?

This has been brought into sharp focus by Andrew Rawnsley’s forthcoming book (The End of the Party) of which long extracts covered pages of yesterday’s Observer newspaper (21 Feb 2010).  Rawnsley’s evidently well sourced account of Gordon Brown’s working style is devastating, and not mainly because of the allegations about bullying.  Rawnsley claims to confirm from first-hand and reliable evidence what has long been believed, not just in the charmed circle of Westminster insiders, about how Mr Brown works:  the impossibly long hours; the endless agonising over every decision and reluctance to take it;  the reliance for advice and support on a small clique of personal cronies, to the exclusion of senior ministers, civil servants, MPs, party officials, and anyone else;  the preference for focusing on one big issue at a time rather than coping with the constant stream of problems, large and small, that pepper a prime minister’s desk and require quick and firm decisions;  the congenital inability to delegate, leading to constant interference in the minutiae of departmental ministers’ actions and decisions;  the imperfect handling of his personal relations with ministerial colleagues, officials and other staff, aggravated by frequent rudeness and lack of consideration and by the systematic disloyalty of his personal attack dogs;  the temper tantrums.  And, presumably, the bullying.

None of this is new (although many of Rawnsley’s specific examples are).   Six years ago Tom Bower’s polemical biography of Gordon Brown set out in painful detail all the charges against him now paraded anew by Rawnsley.  Those in, for example, the parliamentary Labour party now holding up their hands in horror at Rawnsley’s revelations surely didn’t need to read either Bower or Rawnsley to know how Mr Brown conducts government business, and the likely consequences for the country of his working style and practices once he was in No. 10.  Yet he ascended the national and party throne unchallenged as soon as Tony Blair finally consented to step down.  Many people have a lot of explaining to do.

And yet, and yet: it’s fair to recall that Rawnsley, and even Bower, are careful to acknowledge Gordon Brown’s considerable strengths.  He is clearly Blair’s intellectual and probably moral superior by a longish chalk, although his famous moral compass failed to steer him into a principled stand against Blair’s crimes of aggression against Iraq and, earlier, Yugoslavia (over Kosovo), or against the torrent of illiberal and oppressive legislation emanating from Blair’s successive home secretaries.  Among senior politicians he has an almost unparalelled grasp of economics and finance.  His response to the banking crisis and global financial melt-down was more prompt, decisive and effective than those of any other national leaders, and spectacularly more so than that of the leader of the opposition.  He is scholarly and well read.  Unlike Blair, he has a deep understanding and knowledge of the Labour party and in some ways a gut sympathy with its traditional principles.  He can evidently be enormously kind, sympathetic and supportive.  Although the peddlers of hindsight now assail his record as Chancellor of the Exchequer, it remains the fact that he maintained solid growth without significant inflation or unemployment for a decade, and by massive spending rescued the principal public services from many years of scandalous neglect by previous Conservative governments.  Even if he alone among world finance ministers had spotted the likely consequences of the international banks’ malpractices with their derivatives and packaging of bad debts to make them look safe, there’s little or nothing that he could have done about it without a broad global consensus that governments must step in and stop it, and no such consensus existed.  He didn’t foresee what would happen, but then which national political leader anywhere on the planet did?  Our present predicament would be somewhat less bad if Brown as Chancellor had spent less on public services and had put away more of the nation’s resources for what a gloating Cameron and a gleeful Osborne refer to as “a rainy day”;  but when public services, on which the most vulnerable people in our society rely, were still crying out for catch-up investment and higher standards of service, how could a Labour Chancellor have justified starving them of resources in order to build up the reserves — especially when Britain’s level of public debt was no higher than that of most comparable countries, and lower than many?  And, finally, the current attempts by the Conservatives (and some LibDems) to lay the blame for the recession on Brown’s Chancellorship are patently contemptible, requiring no rebuttal.

Another reservation has to be made about Mr Brown’s inherent unsuitability for the role of prime minister, and the fact that no-one in the know about it did anything to stop it happening:  no-one should forget the political reality in June 2007 when Brown replaced Blair in No. 10.  Brown and Blair were the two biggest figures in British politics, and had dominated them for a decade.  Even those most apprehensive about the prospects for a Brown premiership had no credible alternative candidate to propose.  Any challenger would have been crushed under the tracks of the Brown juggernaut.  He had been Blair’s obvious, acknowledged and unquestioned successor since the glad confident morning of 2 May 1997 when the two men moved into Nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street.  It’s easy to say now that Brown’s personal and practical flaws should have disqualified him from the succession.  But hindsight, as they say, is a fine thing.  Who else was there?

It’s both a personal and a national tragedy that a man with such strengths and such a record of achievement should have turned out, perfectly predictably, to lack so many of the essential qualities required of a competent prime minister.  No. 10 under Brown is plainly dysfunctional.  The idea that with some gigantic effort Gordon Brown could transform himself into an inspiring, charismatic, systematic, decisive, fast-moving, collegiate government leader, loyal to colleagues and earning their loyalty in return, defies belief.  He’s not that kind of person.  He doesn’t deserve the personal abuse now being heaped on him:  his tantrums and inability to make decisions (and stick to them) and probably his bullying of staff are the symptoms of a deep-seated lack of confidence and sense of inadequacy, for which he should be pitied, not excoriated.  But the fact has to be faced:  he’s never going to be a good or even adequately competent prime minister, and humane pity is no excuse for failure to face the unpalatable reality.  The longer he remains as prime minister, the worse the political consequences for the country and the electoral consequences for Labour will be.  Replacing him will be a messy, painful and damaging process;  but his continuance in office up to the election will be messier, more painful and more damaging still.  Pluck up your courage, David Miliband.  And what about the other vegetables?


8 Responses

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    I find your analysis very convincing and fair (I am not an admirer, nor supporter of the Labour Party), and agree that the bullying issue is off off mainstream .
    One thing puzzles me in particular. You refer to his failure to stand up to the “torrent of illiberal and oppressive legislation emanating from Blair’s successive home secretaries”. Pretty soon after he became PM, perhaps in his first big speech, he focused on just this: “I want to talk about liberty”. It’s worth glancing again at the speech which is at http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page13630. It doesn’t look like a speech written by his officials, it looks as if it came from the heart.
    Whatever happened to all those good ideas?

    Brian writes: Thanks, Oliver. You make an excellent point (as ever). I too remember that inaugural address as Brown at last ascended the coveted throne. It raised so many hopes that remain unfulfilled, and now seem likely to remain so. The accent was both on liberty and on change, arousing expectations that there might be at least some return to traditional Labour values in the post-Blair era. Alas! The instincts seem sound, but there’s apparently a disconnect between instinct and action.

  2. Clive Willis says:

    Welcome back! As incisive as ever, even if we don’t always agree…

    Brian writes: Thanks, Clive. I’m glad to be back, but the grind of getting thousands of old files, some vital, cleaned up and liberated from infection and then transferred to a new PC with a new and unfamiliar operating system, then backing up the ageing laptop and the old PC, reformatting their hard disks, installing Windows 7, retrieving the old backed-up files after cleaning them up too, then getting the peripherals to work on the new OS… not surprisingly I’m less than half-way through this gruesome process. But help from the tireless filial guru is near at hand, there’s light at the end of the marathon and the smoke begins to clear from the tunnel.

  3. ObiterJ says:

    Dear Brian, welcome back to blogging.  Computers can be real pains in the proverbial!!
    Your post offers a balanced analysis of Brown.  Just a few thoughts if I may:
    1. HOW a PM works is surely important information which ought to be in the public domain.  His indecisiveness and his inability to delegate properly are extremely worrying features.  The indecisiveness showed markedly when he baulked at the idea of holding a snap election the year after replacing Blair.
    2. I think that Brown does have a good personal “moral compass” but it always appears to be subordinate to the political interests of his party.
    3. I do not actually think that Labour have a really good alternative “leader” at present.  They are all “vegetables.”  Many people “on the streets” have real doubts about the boy wonder Miliband.  He needs a great deal more experience and I have always thought that a spell in Opposition is good for all politicians.
    4. The politicians must have been asleep as the banking crisis unfolded.  The impending disaster was pretty obvious to most thinking people out here in the hard world of business!  Also, many would argue that, to some degree, the government were instrumental in creating the crisis.  The tripartite regulatory system was Brown’s baby.  Also, the government waived competition rules to allow a certain banking merger (lead by Fred the Shred) to take place.
    5. ” Replacing him will be a messy, painful and damaging process.”  I agree but it is best that they plough through that process in Opposition!

    Brian writes: Many thanks. I agree with much of what you say. I don’t however think that Brown’s ‘moral compass’ is subordinated to his party’s political interests, but rather to his ingrained indecisiveness and to the conflicting pressures on him from outside, and perhaps to his near-paranoia. Nor do I agree that the government was in any real sense “instrumental in creating the crisis”, which stemmed from burgeoning bad mortgage lending in the United States, the gradual growth of packaging and selling-on of bad debts by a large number of international banks (primarily American ones), the huge fiscal and trade deficits run up by the US under the Bush II administration (in part to pay for wars), and perhaps most intractable of all, the grotesque trade imbalance between the US and China. Not one of these factors could have been affected in the slightest by any conceivable action on the part of the British government. A Labour prime minister or chancellor who intervened to damp down the housing boom in the UK by making it more expensive and difficult for first-timers to buy houses, or to try to prevent huge international banks with headquarters in Zurich and New York from continuing to make huge profits (and paying huge taxes) from shunting disguised bad debts around the system in ever more complex packaging, would have been thought quite mad, and would have been hounded from office amid cries of derision. A few businessmen (like you, it seems — congratulations!) and rather more economists recognised that all these bubbles were going to burst eventually: but as always in a bull market, even if you know that the bear is waiting outside, you go on buying and pocketing the proceeds as if it will never end simply because you can’t know when it will end.

  4. David Ratford says:

    So what is new in all this? Surely you Brian, of all people, following the political scene as you always do must remember all the title-tattle about Wilson’s ‘kitchen cabinet’, all the comment about the way in which an increasingly authoritarian Thatcher secluded herself with a handful of inside advisers, about Blair and his decision-making round the No. 10 sofa, just to take a few examples of what are all in essence a product of the same deeply entrenched fault in our political system. Single-party majority government, under which Prime Ministers control and, for all their fine words, often come to despise Parliament, understandably encourages Prime Ministers to retreat inwards, relying only on themselves, paranoid about leaks and increasingly losing touch with reality. Deprived of healthier and more open political debate the media’s tendency to focus too much on trivia is reinforced. It’s the same old merry-go-round and will always be so, so long as we adhere to our mid-19th century Parliamentary institutions and patterns of government. (I’ve just been refreshing myself on Trollope!)
    On a separate point, I for one reject the charge of ‘hindsight’ about Brown’s incumbency as Chancellor. The initial stroke in setting up the MPC was about the only commendable thing he did. For the rest, he strengthened the Treasury’s already lethal grip on virtually all aspects of Government and, worst of all, relentlessly pursued the Treasury’s historic course of pandering to the City and sacrificing other interests – industrial, economic and financial – to it. Much of the ‘growth’ to which you refer was candy-floss and year after year our external deficits continued. Hardly surprising that when the house of cards finally collapsed we in Britain, with our disproportionate financial sector, find ourselves saddled with disproportionately heavy public debts. What a legacy we leave to our grandchildren!
    Brian writes: Thanks, David. I don’t think I suggested that any of the working methods of former prime ministers as you describe them are ‘new’, and we all probably remember them well, although I think you are less than fair to Harold Wilson (but then everyone else is, too). Doesn’t the term ‘kitchen cabinet’ go back to Lloyd George? Gordon Brown’s congenital itch to interfere in the minutiae of other ministers’ departments is one of the failings mentioned in my post, so I don’t need reminding of it. Pandering to the City and acquiescing in the continuation of our disproportionately large financial sector both flow from the destruction of the nation’s industrial sector by Mrs Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe early in the reign of The Lady, and it’s difficult to see what can be done about them now — and even more difficult to see how they could realistically have been tackled during Labour’s first decade when the financial sector goose was laying the indispensable golden eggs. I think the gravity of a large public debt is much exaggerated: obviously the current exceptional and utterly unavoidable debt will have to be greatly reduced over the next decade or so, but historically we have soldiered along quite comfortably with far higher levels of public debt than we had immediately before the crisis broke in 2008. High unemployment is self-evidently a far more damaging threat to our society than debt — and indeed private debt was far more of a problem until the crisis than public debt. And finally, as you more than most will know, I don’t agree with your attribution of all our political, financial and social ills to one-party government (by which of course you mean our present electoral system for the house of commons). You are a tireless advocate, among many who agree with you, of an electoral system which would always — really always, not just very occasionally — produce a hung parliament in perpetuity. You only have to read the media pundits to see what a disaster a hung parliament later this year will be, with the markets panicking over the uncertainty and unpredictability of future government policy for dealing with the recession, the party of a minority government (presumably the Tories) beholden to the LibDems for their survival, and a general consensus that struggling along like that for any length of time would be so intolerable that an early second election to elect, hopefully, a one-party government with an overall majority would be inevitable. And that’s the situation that the advocates of Proportional Representation for the house of commons want to wish on us for all time, election after election! But that’s a subject for another post and another lot of comments.

  5. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

     >>Doesn’t the term ‘kitchen cabinet’ go back to Lloyd George? <<

    Rather further back Brian.   To Andrew Jackson actually.

    Glad to see you back, computer troubles all over?  

    Brian writes: Carl, it’s good to see you back, too. The remedy for the computer troubles is continuing to absorb a huge amount of time and effort in every spare hour of every day, but at least J. and I have working machines again while the mighty work of off-site back-ups, reinstallation of programs and apps, intensive anti-virus scanning with ESET, and all the rest of it, goes on, day and (literally) night!

  6. Phil says:

    Like David, I was immediately reminded of at least one earlier PM by some of your comments on Brown – “ingrained indecisiveness, conflicting pressures … near-paranoia” is surely Wilson to a T. And Wilson fought five elections, won four, led the government for twelve years and left at a time of his own choosing.
    I’m not saying Brown is a great PM – he clearly isn’t. But I’m very suspicious of the current round of character assassination, and I don’t think anyone sympathetic with Labour should take it too seriously. As for a leadership challenge, the time for that is surely after the election, however it turns out. Apart from anything else, a challenge is much harder to mount than it was in the past (one of several measures taken by the incoming Blairites to pre-empt any threat to their position). A serious attempt to remove Brown would be either massively disruptive or against the LP constitution – and, this close to an election, neither of those options would do the party any good.

    Brian writes: Phil, I don’t think your comparison of Brown to Harold Wilson is fair to the latter. I had some (limited) first-hand experience of Wilson at work as prime minister and found him unvaryingly impressive, contrary to his posthumous reputation. In crisis he remained remarkably calm, and I never found him indecisive. He was certainly subjected to conflicting pressures (like all prime ministers) but he never allowed himself to be paralysed by them: he resisted American pressure for UK participation in the Vietnam war and much emotional pressure from British public opinion as well as from some external governments to side with the Biafran rebels against the Nigerian federal government (absolutely correctly, in my view). So far from being paralysed by outside pressures or simple indecisiveness, he was fertile in devising surprise initiatives, some of them successful (e.g. the EEC referendum), some not. And he was not, as far as my experience of him went (admittedly not extensive), bad-tempered or discourteous to colleagues and officials. He was surrounded by some questionable personal advisers, true, although none anything like as toxic as some of the Brown clique: and as for paranoia, the old saying applies in spades: “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

    As for Gordon Brown’s future as Labour leader and prime minister: I don’t think it’s right or possible to dodge the inconvenient truth that (fairly or otherwise) Brown as leader is an albatross round the party’s neck, and that Labour would do significantly better at the forthcoming election under almost anyone else. The longer Brown stays, the greater the risk that Labour will be virtually wiped out at the election and will shrink to an extremist, doctrinaire, feuding rump, perhaps for a decade or more. Personally I think this would be a major disaster.

  7. brian,
    with the tory opinion poll lead narrowing, and cameron appealing to  patriotism,   it may be that your ‘wipe-out’ hypothesis is a little pessimistic. with a few weeks to voting day, you are surely not suggesting that the risk is greater of a ‘wipe-out’ if brown is dumped?

    Brian writes: Tony, I have said all along that the situation changes from day to day and that predictions can at best be highly provisional. But I still wouldn’t discount the possibility that when minds are really focused on how to vote (i.e. once an election day is announced) antipathy to Gordon Brown will produce a serious swing from Labour to the Tories — and probably to the LibDems, the Greens, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. How big a share of this the Tories can manage to collect will depend to some extent on how far they succeed in improving the credibility of their policies and the gravity and seriousness with which they present them. They face a serious disadvantage in the distribution of voters in constituencies and a less serious one in that their main leaders have no experience of ministerial office and so lack the gravity that office brings, plus suspicion of Cameron’s and Osborne’s Upper Class Twit of the Year images; but they have the countervailing advantages of a huge war chest, their concentration for a long time now of hefty resources on their winnable marginals, the likelihood that Cameron will come across as much more plausible and likeable than Brown in the TV debates, and above all the strong dislike of Brown in the country.

    So your last sentence is the opposite of my view: If Brown is dumped at almost any time before the election, the likelihood of a Labour wipe-out will be much reduced. But he’s most unlikely to be challenged as long as the polls seem to be moving (almost inexplicably!) in Labour’s favour.

  8. John Miles says:

    It gets more and more difficult to say anything new about Mr Brown, but here are a couple of points:

    One, I’m no medic but some fifty years ago one of my retinas was accidentally detached by a blow  I walked into in a game of basketball.
    So I couldn’t help being interested in what Mr Brown had to say to Mr Morgan about his own experience.
    It made no sense to me whatever.
    I’ve informally consulted  a doctor – admittedly not an eye specialist –  and he couldn’t make sense of Mr Brown’s version either.
    Obviously we may have both missed something, but I’m inclined to doubt it.
    Maybe not important, just One More Thing.

    Two, what kind of an economic genius thinks it’s a good wheeze to give OAP’s a bonus of 25p a week (less tax) when they hit eighty?