Gerry Hassan's review (14 November
) of Gordon Brown's recently published memoirs treats him as a political figure on the British stage. His impact on Scottish politics was longer lasting, right up till the appointment of a new leader of the Scottish Labour Party was announced.
Before spending close to two decades as a 'titan in British politics' he had already made a significant mark on the Scottish political landscape. As editor of the 'Red Paper on Scotland,' in 1975 at the age of 24, he produced the last coherent outline of a future socialist Scotland. Contributors included Robin Cook, Jim Sillars, Tom Nairn, Alex Ferry, John McGrath and Vincent Cable – then a Labour councillor on Glasgow Corporation.
It was a considerable achievement. It envisaged Scotland abandoning a capitalist economy in favour of a centrally-directed, socialist one. A decade later this became known as Bennism. At that time it appeared not only plausible but – as the post-war economic boom fizzled out – 'on the right side of history.' By the time Gordon Brown became chancellor in 1997, this vision had been replaced by an acceptance of the capitalist system. The form of capitalism embraced was closer to the American version than alternative models from Scandinavia or the Rhineland. What he did, though you would never guess this from his speeches and writings, was to move from socialism to free market capitalism, missing out social democracy on the way. Why he did it has never, to the best of my knowledge, been spelled out.
He was not alone in moving right. Jim Sillars, Alistair Darling, John Reid and a string of other Labour MPs had also done so. (Slightly later, Alex Salmond did likewise and became, like Brown, a cheerleader for Fred Goodwin.) Alan Greenspan was Brown's guiding light, with the result that the Labour government of 1997-2010 was a more enthusiastic supporter of capitalism than the centre-right governments led by Chirac and Merkel.
Does any of this matter in 2017? It does because the failure of Brown and his generation to come clean about their disillusionment with socialism left a legacy of intellectual dishonesty.
Former socialists who had evolved into enthusiastic supporters of the capitalist order – particularly globalisation – continued to use the vocabulary of the left. When the project they had embraced so enthusiastically blew up in 2008, they were paralysed intellectually. They remain so. At the heart of Britain's economic problems for the past decade – and, quite possibly the next one too – is the fact that the blueprint for prosperity put forward by Gordon Brown and supported by all the main parties has fallen apart. None of them has anything resembling an alternative.
The significance of this failure was on display when Richard Leonard became the new Scottish Labour leader. He promised socialism and a high wage economy: the Red Paper gospel. The Labour Party in Scotland and in the UK failed to have an honest intellectual discussion when, in the 1980s and 1990s, it enthusiastically embraced capitalism. There was an honest case for abandoning Red Paper socialism but – to avoid upsetting activists – it was never put forward. Instead, 'this is the only way to win an election' was the mantra used.
Having failed to fight and win the intellectual argument 40 years ago, Gordon Brown cannot complain when those who would have lost such an argument are now in the driving seat and – with supreme irony – are using his ideas and vocabulary from 40 years ago.
Once upon a time there was a ground-breaking television investigative programme called Panorama. Headed by stalwarts like Richard Dimbleby and Kenneth Allsopp, the programme took on contentious issues and investigated and reported back without fear nor favour. Tempora mutant! Recently, with much fanfare, the latest Panorama scoop managed to report back that Lewis Hamilton, a driver, managed to avoid VAT on the purchase of a private jet by negotiating through the Isle of Man, a known tax haven. The programme stressed that Hamilton had done nothing illegal and forgot to mention that any UK resident could apply the same tax concession for a business acquisition. So far, no drama, no revelation and indeed no scandal. Curiously, they forgot to mention that Hamilton so loves paying UK taxes that he is now resident in Monaco and avoids them all anyway. Again, nothing illegal and nothing of any import.
Sensing total anti-climax, the editors turned their attention to a soft target, the Prince of Wales. Allegedly Prince Charles had invested in a friend's forestry company based in Bermuda. The sum was small and probably reflected a dinner party guest's polite reaction to a climate discussion over coffee. The gauche reporter tried to imply that Charles then went off promoting climate change issues mainly to increase the value of his investment. This was clearly risible. First, Charles has always campaigned on climate issues, over several decades. Second, the sum involved was very modest and a fraction of the Duchy wealth and the idea that Charles would campaign to gain money is childish if not extremely laughable. Third, none of the Royal recommendations were adopted or followed, but Charles did double his money, which rather left the BBC reporter looking lost at sea.
As a licence-payer, I feel that the BBC has lost the plot and can only fall back on rather antique abandoned dogma of the Labour Party of yesteryear. It would be far more interesting to note how many individuals in the BBC are paid directly or into 'production companies' where they can avoid tax. Second, why do we still have tax havens anyway? (Guernsey, Jersey, Caymans, Bermuda, Gibraltar, Virgin Islands, Isle of Man etc.) Third, why is it that every major law firm in Edinburgh and London has an active A&E department (avoidance and evasion) specifically designed to run round or through our UK tax laws? Why is it that they are aided and abetted at every turn by the four major accountancy firms who also advise on tax avoidance worldwide?
If any astute editor on Panorama could start to address these questions then viewing numbers would increase rather than be confined to the close family members of the low-flying reporters trotting round the Isle of Man with a microphone.
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