What exactly are the differences between Blair and Brown?by Steve Richards / October 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
One of Gordon Brown’s senior advisers has a theory. He estimates that the Blair/Brown soap opera erupts in the media every three months, as regular as the seasons. The trigger is usually a newspaper report suggesting that Brown wants Blair’s job immediately and is still angry about not securing the leadership in 1994, or claiming that Blair feels betrayed by his chancellor and is ready to sack him. After the first report, others wade in. Then everyone calms down again for three months.
The adviser is on to something: check the cuttings. But even when the personal animosity between the two men is not itself the story, much of Britain’s political debate is observed through the prism of their conflict. Brown’s opposition to foundation hospitals, for example, is not usually judged on its merits but dismissed as posturing to old Labour, part of his long-running leadership campaign.
It is understandable that the relationship between the two men who have dominated British politics for a decade should be portrayed in human terms. It is a fascinating duopoly of mutual regard and suspicion. But it is also more than that, and it is surprisingly seldom that the actual policy and ideological differences between the two men are held up to the light.
Before I attempt that task, one of the cruder caricatures needs to be cleared away. The political tensions are not between a modernising prime minister and an old-Labour chancellor. Brown gave independence to the Bank of England, imposed a two-year spending freeze in the first term, cut the basic rate of income tax and developed the private finance initiative. Now he is distracted by the need for more flexible labour markets and is quite explicit that the interests of public sector workers do not equate with the public interest. This is not a set of views designed to please union leaders in a future leadership contest. Conversely, Blair recognised the urgency of increasing public spending, especially in the NHS, halfway through Labour’s first term, and was a firm supporter of the tax rises announced in the 2002 budget. Blair and Brown are both New Labour to their fingertips.
But what does that mean? New Labour is a flexible concept, ill defined enough for its originators to fall out over its precise purpose. At the heart of recent tensions between Blair and Brown is an only partly ideological dispute over…