Wednesday, December 19, 2007

ROGER COHEN: Brown’s British Blues



A few weeks ago, Jonathan Freedland published a long piece in The New York Review of Books that caught Gordon Brown mania. As the antithesis of Tony Blair, whom Britain’s liberal-left chattering classes came to loathe with herdlike unanimity, Brown would likely “confound the skeptics again.”

With approval, Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian, noted the new prime minister’s deft distancing of himself from President Bush, his “breaking from the culture of spin” and his appointment of competent ministers. “Those qualities once deemed weaknesses — his lack of glitz and sparkle — have come to seem like strengths,” he wrote.

Ill-timed articles are nothing unusual, although this was a conspicuous one from a journalist of conspicuous gifts — which is precisely what makes it so interesting. Freedland’s encomium to the diligent Brown captured the capacity of accumulated, Iraq-driven Blair aversion to deliver the delusional.

In fact, Brown’s lack of glitz and sparkle has come to seem precisely what it is in the modern political age: a drawback. The impact of France’s flamboyant president, Nicolas Sarkozy — like Blair’s in 1997 — is sufficient reminder of that. More important, Brown’s problem with decision-making is proving crippling.

As a successful chancellor of the Exchequer over Blair’s decade, Brown loved to tinker with the tax code. The tinkerer is a good name for him. Since taking office in June, he has scarcely found a controversial issue not worthy of lengthy review. The only committee his cabinet lacks is one on decision-making.

He took the country to the brink of a snap election in the fall, only to pull back and claim opinion polls had not influenced him. The British electorate is no exception to the rule that nobody likes to be taken for a fool.

He withdrew some, not all, troops from Iraq, bequeathing confusion in Basra and distancing Britain from the first positive turn in Iraqi events in a long time.

Last week, he took his Hamlet-like hesitations to a new level. (Shakespearean allusions haunt Brown because brooding ambition and blatant flaws so evidently shape his fate.) Invited to a signing ceremony for the European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon, an event attended by every other E.U. leader, he chose to skip the spectacle, a silly sop to Britannia’s Euro-skeptics that succeeded only in looking rude.

After six months in office, Brown has comforted rather than confounded the skeptics. He has alienated both Washington and Brussels, an unusual achievement. Far from breaking with Blair’s rule by coterie — sometimes known as “sofa government” — he has proved a dour centralizer: sofa rule without the sofa.

His recent extension of the time terror suspects can be held without charge illustrated his capacity to disappoint the left while losing Blair’s magnetism over the center. Add to this the huge bailout of the mortgage lender, Northern Rock, and a scandal surrounding Labor Party donations and you have the elements of one of the most spectacular falls from grace of recent political history. Brown now trails his Conservative rival, David Cameron, by 10 points in opinion polls.

I’d say this debacle was near inevitable.

Brown arrived, without his own mandate, at the tail end of the 10-year phenomenon of New Labor. His fraught but fecund relationship with Blair drove that success, leaving Brown bereft. He is still prone to questions about Blair — “Why did he give up his seat in Parliament anyway?” — that bewilder aides in the midst of unrelated policy discussions.

In an age where people realize the limits of what politicians can deliver, he offers little of the hope and distraction they seek. As Rachel Sylvester noted in The Daily Telegraph, Brown faces some of the problems Hillary Clinton has with Barack Obama.

He and Clinton are both “emerging from the shadow of more charismatic partners” and trying to position themselves as the “embodiment of experience” against a “puppyish symbol of hope” (read Cameron or Obama). For now, the heart-stirring pups have momentum.

That could still change, of course. What will not change is that Brown faces the tough task of following one of the most gifted and successful British prime ministers of the past century, a man who gave the country peace in Northern Ireland, sustained prosperity and renewed confidence. The fact is, by the end, Iraq had induced feverish blindness to Blair’s achievements among Britain’s left-liberal, Guardian-reading establishment.

Of Afghanistan and Iraq, Blair once said: “I am proud — was proud and remain proud — of this country and the part it played, especially our magnificent armed forces, in removing two vile dictatorships and giving people oppressed, almost enslaved, the prospect of democracy and liberty.”

He stood, without equivocation, on the right side of history. Where Brown stands on most things remains a mystery.


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