Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Scandal, hubris and Tolstoy: The travails of Gordon Brown

Northern Rock, Missing Child Benefit CDs, Labour party donations. The three sagas that have thrown the Brown government into turmoil and the media into a feeding frenzy. Three months ago Brown was heralded as the most skilled political operator of a generation – he had dealt with foot and mouth, set out a new agenda and had the political hacks asking ‘Tony who?’. But let’s look at the events that have caused all the hoo ha of the last month.

Firstly, Northern Rock. The government managed this pretty well, responding to events (the credit crunch) beyond their control – they had to let the markets know that the Rock had been lent money by the Bank of England or they’d have been accused of a cover up. If they’d have immediately guaranteed every penny thus negating the risk that big investors took the cries of ‘moral hazard’ would have rung out around Westminster. In the end no punter has lost a penny and the government should (eventually) get it’s money back.
Brown's Star rating: * * * *

Next, the missing Child Benefit CDs. In an immediate sense it clearly wasn’t the government’s fault that so much sensitive data had been put in unregistered post by the HMRC. What was more damaging for Brown were the stories that came out of the Revenue and Customs about the low morale and cost cutting regime that meant that taking short cuts had become normal. Brown loved the headlines when he was chancellor about slashing civil servants jobs and saving the tax payer millions, but preventing good staff doing their job properly is a false economy. In the event the government did the firefighting as well as they could, but this was a past action that came back to haunt Brown.
Brown’s Star Rating: *

Finally, the donations scandals. The major Labour donor David Abrahams had been siphoning his donations through his staff who lived on Council estates to ‘protect his privacy’. Some people in a Labour party strapped for cash decided not to look too closely at where the money was coming from and got caught. Human instinct tells us not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but we expect incredibly high standards from our politicians and expect them to rigorously fight their instincts each and every time, even when it doesn’t seem that anyone’s looking. Let him who is without sin casts the first stone…

The encouraging thing is that Brown and Hilary Benn honourably actually refused the donations with Hilary Benn telling Abrahams to donate the money directly if he was that bothered about being involved. The slow drip drip of information leaves a sour taste in the mouth and there may be more to come, but I don’t see why anyone else should fall on their swords yet. The enquiries will lead to ever more stringent rules on donations and we will remain one of the cleanest political cultures in the world. Bungled administration and wishful thinking yes, but widespread corruption – unlikely.
Brown’s Star Rating:
* * *

So Brown’s not done too badly over the last month by my reckoning, but he’s been caught at the centre of a rabid media and, as Harold Wilson said, events dear boy, Events. In War and Peace on the eve of battle, Tolstoy has Napoleon surveying his troops and
making decisions which he thinks will be decisive in steering the course of the fight. In fact his orders had very little bearing on what happened and the battle was won and lost by millions of combined actions by the soldiers on the field. On this occasion the French lost and the shine on Napoleon’s ‘genius’ was tarnished. Yet as Tolstoy said ‘his orders were not any less good’ than on the occasions he was victorious.

It is hubris on the part of politicians when they pretend that their decisions are the prime factors in events, but equally ridiculous when we the public foist that expectation and belief upon them.