Last year when Gordon Brown was in India as the British Chancellor, he had to contend with the rise of a certain Shilpa Shetty, albeit transient, in the British cultural firmament. During his just concluded visit to India after assuming the mantle of the British Prime Minister, he had to contend with his own fall in British politics best captured in the remarks of Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader, in the House of Commons, "This House has noted the Prime Minister's remarkable transformation from Stalin to Mr Bean" that contrasted his earlier reputation as a Stalinist control freak with the appearance of a hapless, bumbling Mr Bean stumbling from one crisis to another.
It all started last October when Brown indicated that he would be calling for an early General Election to get a popular mandate from the British people for his Premiership but then decided to call it off once he realised that the Conservatives were actually doing better than expected in opinion polls. Since then it has been a virtual freefall in the support for the Labour Party with Brown's leadership devoid of any quality to pull it out of the rut. Most recently, Brown has refused to ask for the resignation of one of his prominent Cabinet Ministers, Peter Hain, despite calling him "incompetent," even as Hain has admitted his failure in declaring to the Electoral Commission a massive sum in donations that he used to finance his election campaign. Morale throughout the government and the Party is at its lowest ebb as the Labour has been left reeling from a series of blunders that include a row over public funding and the loss of personal records by the Home Office among others. The contrast between a decisive and determined Tony Blair, with all his faults, and an indecisive and dithering Brown is all the more jarring.
At a time when Britain stands at a crossroads in terms of its domestic economic milieu and its foreign policy, Brown's inability to inspire confidence in himself and in his government can have long-term consequences for the Labour Party. After three successive election victories under Blair, Labour is yet to come to terms with its recent fall from grace. And as the Tories rise steadily in the polls under a more telegenic David Cameron, their most substantive since Margaret Thatcher was in power, the British politics seems set for another major shift comparable to the one witnessed in 1997 when the New Labour under Blair swept to power with a staggering mandate.
Both Blair and Brown had long been frustrated with the old Labour's trajectory and the constant infighting within the Party, and were convinced of the need for the party to change if it were to capture the British hearts and minds. While Brown was seen as the intellectual heavyweight and was senior to Blair, it was Blair who was better at articulating the hopes and anxieties of ordinary Britons and inspire people to take Labour seriously. The deal that Blair and Brown struck and that has shaped British politics ever since was to make Brown the most powerful chancellor in the history of British politics with unprecedented control over domestic policy while paving the way for Blair to be the leader of the party and Britain's Prime Minister.
As Blair moved to transform the landscape of British politics by seizing the middle ground and relegated the extremes on both the right and the left to the margins, Brown set about exerting his control over the British Treasury with "Stalinist ruthlessness" and made sure that his reach extended into every area of domestic policy. Not surprisingly, this led to tensions between the Treasury and No. 10 Downing Street with Blair feeling that Brown was usurping his authority and making it difficult to pursue his agenda. But Brown's helmsmanship of the Treasury gave the Labour party a reputation for sound economic management, something that was deemed almost impossible and made Labour, as opposed to the Tories, the natural party of governance. Thus emerged Gordon Brown's unique selling point--competence.
It's that competence that is under question today as economic woes mount for the British people. The run on the Northern Rock, Britain's fifth-largest mortgage lender which is being sustained by emergency funding from the Bank of England and seems on the verge of being nationalised, has become emblematic of current British economic troubles amid fears of a recession, a fall in housing prices and a rise in unemployment.
Foreign policy was never Brown's strong suit but even after six months as the head of the British government, it is remarkable that apart from his known passion for Africa, so little is known as to where Brown stands on major foreign policy issues facing Britain. When he was the chancellor, he opted to keep an enigmatic distance from all major foreign policy decisions that Blair took, described as his Macavity-like habit of vanishing at the first sign of trouble. That option is no longer on the table and as he has been forced to make some controversial choices, the pressure is clearly beginning to show. He has been trying to please all sections and as a result has not been able to provide a post-Blair foreign policy framework to his people. While he tried to demonstrate that he would not be the closest of buddies with the US President, he has also not been very enthusiastic about the recently signed treaty of Lisbon by the European Union (EU) members that signals the resolve of the member states to make the EU a more powerful and coherent organization. Brown finds the European economic model sclerotic and the EU bureaucracy highly inefficient. This incoherence in foreign affairs has left Britain with few friends on either side of the Atlantic as France under a charismatic Nicholas Sarkozy and Germany under an effective Angela Merkel have moved in to fill the vacuum left by Blair by courting America and the EU is also being shaped more by France and Germany than by British interests.
Similar lack of clarity is evident in Brown's Iraq policy. Troop withdrawals have been announced but a token British presence remains in Basra which is neither able to take on the insurgents fully nor able to contain street violence. If he decides to withdraw completely, it would not only be seen as an irresponsible move but might also jeopardize Britain's ties with the US, something that even he has conceded remains central to British foreign policy. So long as Tony Blair was there, the anger of the anti-war crowd was directed against him on Iraq. But it was this same crowd that cheered him when he fashioned an aggressive liberal interventionist agenda for Britain, Europe, and the West. Long before, George Bush appeared on the global stage, Tony Blair was calling for the use of force against tyrannical, genocidal regimes. In one of his famous speeches in Chicago in 1999, he declared "We are all internationalists now". He led the international community's actions against the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevich and used British forces in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. The liberals in the West were all for such actions and found in Blair a true champion of their ideas.
Iraq has confounded most ideological categories and has shattered a lot of myths about the use of force but the truth is that liberal interventionist agenda remains a potent one in Britain and in the West at large. While there might be a lot of temptation to refute Blair's legacy by disowning his interventionist agenda, it's a choice that British foreign policy elite cannot make easily. Brown has also found, much to his consternation, that try as he might he cannot distance himself from the Blair legacy.
Brown is now hoping that he can give a new sense of direction to his leadership by making a foray to the Orient. By visiting the emerging centres of global political and economic power, he wants to project an image of a global leader who comprehends emerging global trends. He views himself as a foremost advocate of the positive externalities generated by the forces of globalization and believes in further integrating China and India in the global political and economic order. Much like his predecessor, therefore, Brown has expressed his support for civilian nuclear cooperation with India after the NSG has blessed the US-India nuclear pact and for India's entry into the UN Security Council as a permanent member as well as into the G-8, the IMF and the World Bank. He would like "a confident 21st century India, working with a confident 21st century Britain, in an equal partnership and an alliance that is founded on shared values--the world's largest democracy and one of the world's oldest democracies, cooperating together in harmony for the mutual benefit of us all"
Brown, however, wants India to behave in consonance with its rising stature in global politics by taking a more pro-active stance on prodding the Burmese junta to relax its constraints on the pro-democracy forces as well as a more serious posture in the global climate change negotiations. He hopes for greater cooperation on counter-terrorism between the security and intelligence services of the two countries and advocated the introduction of more sophisticated detection systems at the ports and the airports to prevent the movement of people carrying weapons or explosive materials across the nations. But not surprisingly, it was economics that dominated his visit as he highlighted the doubling of the UK-India bilateral trade in the last five years with an annual rise of 20 percent. While India will definitely find an admirer in Brown and an interlocutor who can effectively leverage his nation's global role in making India's case to the international community, it is not clear if Brown's latest foreign policy venture will shift British public's attention from his domestic woes.
Time is on Brown's side as he doesn't have to hold elections until 2010 but he is struggling to shift the collective British mood in his favour. His unedifying and almost vertiginous descent is one of the most spectaculars in recent British political history and is a testament to the fickleness of public attitudes in times of crisis. Brown's is a formidable intellect and his grasp of policy minutiae is probably stronger than any of his contemporaries. But politics is more than just policy. It's the ability of the leaders to inspire and shape the collective consciousness of a people which Blair achieved by leading from the front, and even when the British public was not particularly supportive, he had the courage of his convictions to have his ideas out in the open to be debated and refined. He took intellectual and politics risks and often paid the price but never shirked from his responsibility as a leader.
Brown is in desperate need for a larger political narrative that inspires his people and gives a coherent view of what a Labour government under his leadership stands for, something Britons have been searching for ever since he assumed office in July last year.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.
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