Americans have come to know and admire Tony Blair as the British prime minister. But, like former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair is about the only British politician that most Americans do know. For instance, when John Major was prime minister for the seven years following Margaret Thatcher, from 1990 until 1997, very few Americans knew who he was.
This is at least partly because the American media does not cover British politics extensively, believing that what happens in Britain is not very important for Americans. Of course, this era is different because of Tony Blair’s staunch support for President Bush’s initiative in Iraq. As a result Blair—like Thatcher during the end of the Cold War and Churchill during World War II—enjoys major American media attention.
What has been missing in this coverage, however, is any attention to Gordon Brown, Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer (a more powerful version of the U.S. secretary of the treasury) who is Tony Blair’s powerful partner in managing the successful British economy and his most senior colleague in helping to govern Britain. In addition, if Blair were to leave office before the next election, Brown is widely expected to be Blair’s successor as leader of the Labour Party and prime minister.
In recent months speculation about Tony Blair’s tenure in office has increased significantly as his public standing has fallen, especially in the wake of the controversy over the Iraq war. For those in the Labour Party who are angry at Blair for Iraq and also for being what they see as far too imitative of Conservative Thatcher- and Major-like policies, Gordon Brown has emerged as an heir apparent who would be, as many say, a “real” Labour prime minister.
So who is Gordon Brown and what would be the likely impact on Britain’s relations with the United States if he became leader of the Labour Party and prime minister?
The Brains behind New Labour?
Gordon Brown is a 53-year-old Scot with a PhD in economics. Whereas Blair came from a Conservative family and joined the Labour Party during his teenage years, Brown is from a family deeply rooted in Labour and working-class politics. Also, in contrast to Blair, Brown is a less ebullient, less charismatic, more outwardly serious personality, even appearing to some people as dour and unemotional. Many, however, are enormously impressed with his genuineness and obvious intelligence.
Some observers insist that Brown has been the brains behind the rebirth and success of the Labour Party before and during its incumbency in government. Although Brown is certainly less charismatic than Blair, he is a good speaker who argues his policies forcefully and with conviction. In parliamentary argument or question time, Brown is consistently a powerful force capable of dispatching any opposition spokesperson thrown up against him. During the seven years that Labour has been in power, Brown has consistently overwhelmed the opposition Conservative Party spokesman on economic affairs with impressive sureness. Brown is also a favorite of many in the Labour Party who regard themselves as traditional or “old” Labour, with its nostalgia for more socialist thinking. They take comfort from Brown’s background and his efforts to encourage them to believe that his heart is firmly rooted in Labour’s historic commitment to egalitarianism. Their palpable distaste for what they regard as the Thatcher-like Blair has driven them to embrace Gordon Brown as their preferred leader who would establish, if he became prime minister and party leader, a “real” Labour government.
The reality about Gordon Brown, however, is actually quite different, which makes the old Labour expectations about his potential leadership relatively unrealistic. After all, Brown has been a central architect, along with Blair, of the policies of the current government. He is a professional economist and has demonstrated, as chancellor of the exchequer, that he is firmly committed to the free market and opposed to restoring the socialist policies and nationalization schemes of previous Labour governments. What Brown has been offering to the party is what amounts to having a “cake and eating it too,” that is, the best of New Labour with its commitments to free enterprise and restrained government size and spending (frankly based on the traditions of the Thatcher revolution) along with a stress on the compassionate values of the traditional Labour Party, with its emphasis on improving public services such as health, education, and transportation. And, given the discontent with Tony Blair within Labour at the moment, this part of Brown’s vision is attracting a great deal of support.
The problem for Brown is that Tony Blair apparently does not plan to step aside anytime soon, despite speculation that he will quit sometime before the next election, which is likely in 2005. Blair has made it clear recently, in fact, that he intends to lead the Labour Party in the next election.
The question of Brown’s succeeding Blair has a long and bitter history, going back nearly a dozen years when Gordon Brown competed for and lost the Labour Party leadership to Tony Blair following the sudden death of the previous leader, John Smith. That contest was bitter and very personal, for Blair and Brown had been close ever since they both entered Parliament in 1983.
After Blair won, he quickly sought an end to the rancor and began setting the stage for modernizing the Labour Party in order to make it electorally competitive. The widely believed story is that Blair did make peace with Brown, as well as shape the future of the Labour Party, at dinner in a restaurant in the Islington section of London. As the story goes, the two secretly agreed that Brown would be chancellor of the exchequer in a Blair government and that he would have unchallenged (even by the prime minister) control of economic and monetary affairs. Further, the two supposedly agreed that Blair, after a couple of terms as prime minister, would hand over control of the Labour Party and, if still in office, the office of prime minister to Brown. Although neither Brown nor Blair has ever officially confirmed this agreement, journalists and political scholars insist that their sources have solidly confirmed its existence.
They also insist that in recent years the relationship between Brown and Blair has steadily declined because of fierce arguments over such issues as British adoption of the euro currency and Blair’s remaining in leadership beyond the terms of the “deal.” Both leaders have denied that any friction between them exists, but, confirming the reports, their closest advisers and supporters constantly snipe at one another.
Most recently, following Blair’s announcement that he will continue to lead the party through the next election, the Brown forces have been floating the idea that Brown might be interested in becoming the head of the IMF, which would take him out of British politics entirely. The message seems to be that if the party and Blair in particular are not willing to give him his chance, he will find another outlet for his talents. So far there has been no indication that Blair will back off his election commitment, nor has there been any hard evidence that Brown is moving to leave the government. Most likely, Brown and Blair will continue to work together while Brown waits for Blair to retire.
Prime Minister Brown?
What difference would a Brown-led government make in the “special” relationship between Britain and the United States? The first and most important point is that every British government of both major political parties has for decades put maintaining close and friendly relationships with the United States at the top of its list of priorities. Gordon Brown would almost certainly keep that emphasis.
Tony Blair’s record shows how powerful the relationship is and is likely to remain. Blair initially doubted that he would be able to build and maintain a close relationship with George Bush because of their very different political viewpoints. But well before 9/11, in fact just days after Bush took office, Blair and his advisers resolved to build a good relationship. Gordon Brown was centrally involved in this decision and has remained at Blair’s side throughout the difficulties over Iraq—though media reports indicate that he has had some misgivings about the war.
But although every British government is likely to remain committed to the special relationship with the United States, it does seem that a Brown-led government would be somewhat more cautious in signing up for future Bush initiatives, both political and military. The political damage that Blair has suffered in Britain, and the uproar inside the Labour Party, means that Labour governments especially will think more carefully about making commitments to the United States. Further, were Brown to become leader anytime soon, it would provide a strategic opening that even Blair would welcome to exercise more caution. There is under way considerable discussion about the need for Britain to be more independent in its foreign policy—a theme that is popular at the moment in Europe, given the discussions about the future of the Western alliance.
Brown would not only take this opening but would also listen more carefully to his colleagues in the House of Commons about international commitments. Blair has been extensively criticized in the matter of Iraq as well as generally for being too “presidential,” which has really meant ignoring the opinions of his colleagues in Parliament from whom, after all, his power flows. Blair got away with his governing style because he enjoyed such overwhelming political strength without significant opposition from the Conservative Party, which otherwise supported his close ties to President Bush. As a result of the political fallout from Iraq, Brown or any Labour leader following Blair will likely pay more attention to his colleagues in the House of Commons and be more cautious about security commitments to the United States.
In the area of economic relations Britain will necessarily remain very committed to as close a relationship with the American side as possible—especially if Britain remains committed to the pound rather than the euro. In these matters Brown’s economic training and instincts will orient him toward the United States even while he tries to build British influence in the European Union.
When and how Tony Blair will leave the political stage is unknown, and as far as he is concerned it is a while off—or is it? The most interesting speculation at the moment is that Blair will lead Labour to a third election victory and then, after perhaps a year, hand off power to Brown as he promised years ago. Whatever happens, Gordon Brown is a powerful figure in British politics who is likely to show up at some point living at Number 10 Downing Street.