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Britain and the financial crisis: Exit Brown stage left?
by Newropeans-Magazine
2009-02-04 09:36:59
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Continental watchers of British politics have been surprised by the recent rehabilitation of the British Prime Minister. During the summer recess, the UK media had, after all, been alive with speculation that Gordon Brown would be deposed by his own party. To all intents and purposes, Brown was a political zombie. Yet, as the country’s financial crisis deepened, this speculation lulled. Brown was given a new lease of political life.

Although his will likely prove a fleeting visit rather than a permanent return from the political dead, Brown’s rehabilitation is nevertheless remarkable: the Prime Minister’s public reputation was apparently boosted by a financial crisis in the UK for which he was the most obvious culprit.

In his public statements, the Premier has therefore been obliged to perform a delicate balancing act, exculpating himself from the crisis whilst claiming the necessary competence for its solution: Brown disassociates himself from the causes of the crisis; yet he boasts that his experience of these causes qualifies him to deal with the current situation. He suggests that his inevitable lack of influence over global economics has made the UK an innocent victim of untameable forces; yet he claims to enjoy the necessary international clout when it comes to moving out of the crisis. In other words, Brown is trying to have his cake and eat it, and at present he appears to be succeeding.


In fact, his rehabilitation can be traced to factors beyond any success he might have had in getting this message across: the crisis has empowered Brown to engage in a kind of political theatre at which he had previously proved inept.

Prior to the crisis, Brown’s public image was profoundly negative. He was written off as a ditherer, as someone who shied away from decisive action. Commentators identified a tension at the heart of the Prime Minister’s governing style: his acknowledged tendency to increase state intervention and to actively gather power around himself was foundering on a crisis of confidence which drove him to think through the tiniest details of a government proposal until he talked himself out of acting. If the commentators are right, the financial crisis has released the Premier from any such predicament. With the onset of the “credit crunch”, the worst-case scenario has been realised, meaning that Brown’s usual pessimism about the effects of decisive action has been rendered null. Things, he will reason, cannot get any worse. He might as well throw himself into action.

And in this changed environment, Brown has been playing his theatrical public role well, proving bold and resolute. Despite the impending crisis, the circumstances have been unusually propitious: he has enjoyed broad scope to make grand gestures. The financial situation has so far stumped experts, leaving Brown’s usual critics reticent to attack the government’s approach. The degree of abstraction which politics has achieved in most people’s minds also means that Brown can promise public money and grand schemes without having to answer too many questions about where the necessary finances and infrastructure will come from. And, in an apparent vindication of the Thatcherite quip that there is no such thing as society in the UK, British families and individuals have shown little thirst for forms of support from civil society.


Of course, this tendency towards political theatre is apparent throughout Europe as voters and traders look to governments for reassurance. Yet, the spectacle and symbolism of political theatre has taken on its own peculiar form in the UK. For example: the British public sets less store by thinkers than do many of its continental counterparts. This means that it is not enough for the UK’s policymakers to show that they are pondering a reasoned response to the credit crunch, taking their time until the nature of the problem has been fathomed. Immediate action has been privileged over public deliberation.

This trend towards activism is reinforced by the fact that the British are famously reassured by ceremony on the part of their rulers. Yet, whilst the government has gained increasing weight in the British political system over the last century it has not garnered concomitant ceremony. The mere convening of a cabinet meeting is not comforting. The production of new initiatives becomes the best form of symbolism for the government.

The demand for immediate government activity is cemented by the centrality of Brown in the political theatre of the credit crunch. This reflects the mediatisation of government and its key figure. If, in reality, Brown’s scope to influence the current situation is extremely limited, he finds himself unable to blame actors and constraints hidden outside the limelight for any lack of activism.


It would be unfair to judge the effectiveness of the government’s actions at this early stage, even if Brown’s grandiose policy response sometimes invites precisely this kind of pre-judgement. It is, however, already possible to state that Brownism is beginning to fail as a piece of political theatre.

The public is becoming increasingly sensible of the mechanisms behind the government’s theatrics. In the last few weeks, the government has been caught out re-launching old schemes as “new”. The modest reality behind some of the government’s initiatives—its internship scheme for graduates for example—has similarly come under attack. There is also a growing suspicion amongst voters that the government response has sometimes been more geared towards political spectacle than the financial problems at hand. Recent schemes to reward employers for taking on applicants out of work for more than 6 months have, for example, been criticised as a mere effort to improve long-term employment figures ahead of the general election.

All this suggests that Brown’s comeback will be brief. And as the criticism of the government grows, the Premier will be forced to broaden his political repertoire. Commentators tip a return to leftist class warfare. However, although it’s an old favourite in Britain, it’s hardly a recipe for success these days. Indeed, this tactic will simply leave opposition parties to capitalise upon a new political cleavage likely to emerge more strongly from the financial crisis: generational conflict. In point of fact, the Opposition are seeking to appeal to younger voters already dismayed by the costs associated with an aging population, who now find their Prime Minister “mortgaging their future” to finance short-term policies. Exit Brown stage Left?

Roderick Parkes
Berlin - Germany

A shorter version of this article is published on Eurozone Watch

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Emanuel Paparella2009-02-04 15:17:10
Fair enough criticism except that Brown seems to be the only one who now goes around saying that laissez fare savage capitalism does not work and we need to find new economic formulas which include not just the powerful but all nations, rich and poor. All that may be mere theoretical bluster but it is refreshing nonetheless coming from the mouth of a consummate politician.

Clint2009-02-04 18:12:40
I am reminded of a story told by the vicar at my Grandmother’s funeral. A shepherd was having a particular problem with a little lamb who kept wandering away from the safety of the flock. He picked up the lamb and broke its leg. He then carried the lamb around his shoulders until the leg had healed thus teaching the lamb to stay close to the one who had cared for it.
Brown through 10 years of boom times in the UK promised us the end of boom and bust and took the plaudits when people called him the best Chancellor this century. He inherited a strong economic position from the outgoing Conservative Government which is conveniently always overlooked and has squandered 10 years of growth without putting anything away for a ‘rainy day’ and has presided over the biggest bust of all-time. He has broken the UK’s legs and now sees himself as the caring shepherd carrying us citizens on his shoulders. Will the UK ‘sheep’ forget like the little lamb in the story… not a chance.

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