September 20, 2006


Splitting Heirs (James Wood, 09.20.06, New Republic)

Gordon Brown is a rather attractively old-fashioned figure. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and, raised in Adam Smith's town, Kirkcaldy, in Fife, he has Presbyterian virtues: He is sober, prudent (one of his favorite words), a little stolid. He is the anti-Blair. No seducer of the press, he speaks with measured gravity. Blair went to a fancy Scottish private school, and Brown to the local high school. He entered Edinburgh University at 16, studied history, and went on to write a doctorate there about the Labour Party in Scotland. Blair seems to have no great devotion to his party, and he has successfully renovated it by copying many of Margaret Thatcher's policies. Brown, by contrast, is a devoted Labour man. He has what seems a very Scottish, even Presbyterian, devotion to social justice and the redistribution of wealth. As chancellor, he has presided over a long period of economic growth, with low inflation and low unemployment, which has allowed him to stealthily tax the wealthy and give financial credits to the poor. He has massively increased funding to the health and educational systems; there have been real, if small, improvements in both.

Cameron is a youthful 39, 15 years younger than Brown. The two men offer a study in contrast. If Brown fairly vibrates with Scottishness, Cameron (despite his Scottish name) is all Englishness. He was born in Oxfordshire, the son of a stockbroker. His wife is the daughter of a baronet. Cameron went to Eton, where he was my exact contemporary. Though I hardly knew him--we were from rather different social classes--in those days he seemed a natural Etonian, and he seems one still: gently entitled, socially charming and at ease, attractively confident. After Eton, he went to Oxford, and he has worked both as a political adviser and as a director of corporate affairs for a TV company. His political experience is slender: He has been a member of Parliament since 2001 and the leader of his party since December 2005.

The country knows very little about the likely political decisions of either man. As chancellor, Brown has been a soft socialist with a cold Thatcherite heart, and he has kept the economy ticking along nicely. One could assume that a Brown government will retain the British pound and continue to give priority to the funding of public services (what the welfare state is now less threateningly called). But part of the sullen pain of his agon with Blair has meant that Brown has silently agreed to the prime minister's more flamboyant gestures while keeping his head down and running his own kingdom. His public support for the Iraq intervention has been lukewarm, and he is generally thought to lack Blair's messianic zeal in foreign affairs (except for a laudable involvement in reducing African debt); but no one really knows what a Brownian foreign policy would look like.

Cameron, meanwhile, has been shrewdly modernizing the image of the Conservatives--by copying Tony Blair and heading shamelessly for the center (poetic justice, since Blair has often said how much he admired Thatcher). Conservatives who dislike Cameron--and there are plenty--like to say that, just as Blair destroyed the old Labour Party to make his so-called "New Labour," so Cameron, channeling Blair, is destroying the old Conservative Party. His supporters are more apt to claim that, just as Blair destroyed the old Labour Party, now Cameron, channeling Blair, will destroy New Labour in the election of 2009. Cameron has made the environment a big priority, and he likes to cycle to work. He has voted for civil partnerships, which give legal recognition to same-sex couples, and he has voted against Blair's obsessive desire to introduce national identity cards. On a recent trip to India, he sent back a daily blog, complete with video clips. His wife, creative director of the posh stationery company Smythson, has a dolphin tattooed on her ankle. Most importantly, he has gracefully diverted attention from the remarkable anachronism of his Etonian background. Orwell said that Englishmen are branded on their tongues, and Cameron's green-welly accent certainly gives him away. Yet, on television, he seems a merely well-educated modern fellow, almost (if not quite) classless--like the current prime minister.

But what would a Cameron government look like? It looks as if, like Brown's, it would retain the pound and give priority to public services. And, like Brown, Cameron speaks an essentially Thatcherite managerial language about making these public services more efficient and consumer-friendly.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 20, 2006 12:00 AM

The really perceptive observation here is that the "country knows very little about the likely political decisions of either man", which is starkly evident.

Both leaders and their parties have really lost their bearings in the post Cold War environment, but that's not the worst problem. The worst problem is that neither party has any idea how to contribute to the more efficient operation of the vast slice of the UK economy under the government control.

After every election now the winning party finds it has promised this same thing, but has literally zero idea how to deliver. No idea at all. The result is a never-ending stream of 'initiatives' (mostly press releases and 'spin') which if they have any practical impact at all just make things worse.

Anyone who knows any real British politicians also knows that this is a problem which is not going to go away. The voters are beginning, after so many empty promises from the Blair crowd, to realize that they are the dummies in this game.

Posted by: ZF at September 21, 2006 12:14 AM

To the contrary, both men would be just like Thatcher and Blair in their politics, though whether their parties will follow them is problematic--the Tories quit on Maggie and Labour is trying to bail on Blairism as Democrats bailed on Clintonism.

Posted by: oj at September 21, 2006 8:38 AM