Friday, 14 December 2012

Does Brown's Story Improve With Age?

Plenty of things improve with hindsight, but could the image of Gordon Brown's time in government really be one of them? 

In "Saving the World"?, William Keegan does an admirably succinct job of restoring some balance to the disastrous picture that emerged after 13 years of New Labour. 

In particular, he relies on his deep knowledge of recent global economic history to emphasise the glorified status Gordo attained through ten years as Chancellor, eight years as chairman of the IMF’s political committee, and his almost sycophantic association with Alan Greenspan. It appears to have been this status that enabled Brown to affect disdain in meetings EU finance ministers, to successfully resist his party's urge for Britain to join the Euro, and which culminated in his ability to convene urgent meetings with G20 leaders during 2008.

William also manfully contends that Brown is entitled to both kudos as an outstanding member of the economic elite and shelter in the safe harbour of the “general consensus” – fostered by his idol, Alan Greenspan – “that the sophistication of modern financial markets had reduced the dangers of a crisis.” 

This I don't buy. For all his ‘listening’ and ‘taking soundings’ amongst his fellow members of the economic establishment, Brown was simply afflicted with groupthink (which we've since learned was rife at the IMF). That he appeared to wake up earlier than others was merely because Northern Wreck was the first retail domino to fall and he had to respond. It was just luck. And it was also luck that taking shares in banks was an option open to him, but not to a right wing US administration (as explained in Too Big To Fail).

Another criticism would be that William only seems to trace the financial crisis to the failure of the Bear Stearns funds in 2007. But that was merely when the financial establishment first realised or conceded there was a problem (as also explained in Too Big To Fail). Anyone who's read The Big Short or Fool's Gold will know that many significant players had been saying (and betting heavily) for years that a crisis was brewing amongst the very banks with whom Gordon was enraptured during his long years at the Treasury and in the IMF. Indeed, William hints at this when he explains how the economist Raghuram Rajan was "subjected to brutal criticism by leading colleagues and disciples of Greenspan's" when he warned "the great and the good" of the impending doom at a conference which Brown attended in 2005. 

In that far deeper context, Gordon's surprise (and outrage) at the sorry state of UK bank finances in 2007-08 merely cements his place amongst the elite groupthinkers who had dismissed explicit warnings for many years. Far from being an especially progressive thinker on the subject of banking calamity, he was actually caught flat-footed by the fundamental flaws others had pointed to in his very own financial system. 

In those circumstances it was the least Gordon could do to keep the ATMs working. On that particular front, he was (perhaps) making the best of a bad job. He should not be seen as having engaged in some kind of heroic quest worthy of an exalted place in the history books.

While William patiently contends that Gordon didn't cause the financial crisis itself, he also properly concedes that he did much to ensure it would be a very long journey out of it. He explains Brown’s avowed and deliberate ‘stealth’ approach to taxation and social welfare spending; the refusal to build any social housing; the unbridled expansion of public sector (complete with higher pay and pensions than the private sector); and the creation of many huge off-balance sheet PFI projects under the guise of ‘prudence’. These things, coupled with a feeble understanding of what the banks were up to, are what should combine to prevent Brown's tenure being seen in a positive light.

Amidst all this, Brown's brief tenure as Prime Minister is almost a footnote - which is strange given his elevation to that role coincided with the peak of his economic profile. William does a good job of highlighting the irony that Gordon really wasn't suited to the job that he'd schemed for so long to obtain. He also points out the irony that Gordon's tendency to dither, vacillate and procrastinate, which had worked to keep Britain out of the Euro, failed when it came to seizing the political initiative with an early general election. 

All in all, an important guide to the Brown years.

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