Wednesday, June 27, 2007

ROGER COHEN: No Thought Control Needed


Take a stroll in Hyde Park these days, with the summer’s shimmer to accompany you, and, depending on your generation, you might just get transported back to the Pink Floyd free concert almost 40 years ago with Roger Waters and David Gilmour at the helm of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.”

A line from that song speaks of “the man who raged at a wall,” and the sound most likely to draw the dreamer back from summer reveries in what is now Gordon Brown’s Britain is that of conversation in Hungarian or Hindi or Hausa, a polyglot symphony that captures this country’s wall-defeating openness.

With the end of Tony Blair’s decade as prime minister, and the passage of power to Brown, the “feral beast” of the British press is gnawing at the Blair legacy. A gloomy view would cite the abyss between the super-rich and the poor of Europe’s “Richistan,” betrayals of trust, enduring health service woes, and of course Iraq.

But, alongside peace in Northern Ireland, I choose openness as the overriding achievement. Perhaps you need to have grown up in an insular Britain with its everyday bigotries, its loss-of-empire chip on the shoulder, and its snotty references to snail-eating Gauls, to appreciate the enormity of the restorative distance Blair has covered.

The process had begun before him and barrier-breaking globalization has helped. But if the City is now the world’s largest financial center, and Poles work England’s farms, and French youth have been Channel-crossing in droves to find jobs, it is because Blair and Brown, the odd couple of politics, chose freedom - for the Bank of England and European Union workers alike.

With openness came tolerance. The nearest thing to a royal wedding here in recent years was the celebration of the civil partnership of Sir Elton John and David Furnish, a gay union covered by the BBC with a reverence once unimaginable. The squirming British have grown more comfortable in their skin, and more comfortable with the skin colors and sexual inclinations of others.

Blair, with his sunny ease, has personified this shift. Which brings us to the odd-couple business. Brown, the smoldering son of a Presbyterian minister, the introvert to Blair’s extrovert, the Scot to Blair’s cosmopolitan, is an altogether different politician.

To say Pangloss is ceding to Macbeth would be unfair to both men, but not entirely. Blair never allowed a setback to upend him. Brown will have to fight his inclination to brood as he moves from a budget-setting job he could plan to Star Wars at Number 10, where everything comes at you at once.

The style will change, but what about the content? Brown has presided over Britain’s economic miracle. Anyone who imagines he will try a tax-and-spend approach to bridging the rich-poor divide is deluded. He promised equal-opportunity change in assuming Blair’s mantle, but has ruled out a return “to the failed approaches of the past.”

The relationship with President George W. Bush will be awkward at first. The president likes proofs of fealty. Brown, an election looming in the next couple of years, has to mark some distance or risk the return of the poodle epithet.

But there will be no abrupt reversal on Iraq or abandonment of the trans-Atlantic bond. If Brown chose to quote Abraham Lincoln, speaking of “the better angels of our nature” in describing his social conscience, it is because he is a convinced Atlanticist.

Blair has departed just as he got the Europe he wants, with market-reforming, America-drawn leaders in Berlin and Paris. Wondering how the Iraq war run-up would have unfolded with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy is a beguiling what-if. But the hypothetical in history is as intriguing as it is ultimately useless.

Brown should also benefit from this new political configuration, with its consensus for a more open and competitive continent, even as he keeps Britain outside euroland. In his calibration of Britain’s role as trans-Atlantic bridge, he will have to bear in mind that Bush now has other European leaders he can turn to if necessary.

For a decade, the waking thoughts of Blair and Brown have been each other. A fundamental change is that Brown will govern without Blair - off to pit his bend-the-world-to-my-convictions certainties against the ultimate challenge of the Middle East. Relieved, or bereft, of the other, they confront enormous tests.

But then these are the guys who turned Labour into a pro-business party, confounding the Conservatives to this day. They are the architects of pro-openness transformation. As Pink Floyd put it: “We don’t need no thought control.”


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