|Renewing the Social Democratic Narrative - A chat with Will Hutton, 30 October 2007|
Gordon Brown has now been Premier for some months. Do you think he has been able to begin establishing a new narrative, or developing a new project, to characterise his leadership for Britain?
The jury is still out. He did make an important speech last week acknowledging that liberty has been undervalued in the British response to terrorism, stresses Britishness, has distanced himself from Bush on Iraq, has proposed some significant modifications to the British constitution and has talked of being the ally of the aspirational.
But what has not happened so far is an attempt overtly to build on the last ten years, acknowledge what was successful, and try to develop an overarching social democratic narrative. He has nothing to say about the wealthy and business’s responsibilities to society; about genuine enfranchisement of working people; the modernisation of trade unions; about working towards a modern welfare state; about building the architecture that would support a knowledge economy; pushing on with public service reform by promoting plural delivery; or boldly embraced the battle against climate change.
There is a lot to do. The tone is very defensive, and there is a real sense that the Tories are beginning to make the political weather.
PerC: In doing all that Brown has a particularly difficult task: where Blair in the 90s had to modernise Old Labour, a losing formula, Brown has to modernise New Labour, a formula which for all its weaknesses in practice, had remained electorally successful. How has his leadership proved different to the Blair project so far?
WH: There have been important echoes – the government of all the talents feels very much like the coalition that Blair built in 1997. He takes less risks with the right on social questions, for example he intends to roll back some of the liberalisation of drug laws – and he is also temperamentally less willing to deploy the politics of argument. He shies away from making a case – for Europe, for ID cards (which he is for, if many in the party against), for or against inheritance tax (which he has reduced) or even for equality.
He likes the set piece event, declaration and House of Commons statement. He is far less at home in the TV and radio studio. He wants to be more open to cabinet colleagues than Blair and more collegiate, but it remains even more of a close court than under Blair.
PerC: One of the new realities that leaders around the world have to adapt to is the growth of China and India. In Australia, this is seen largely as an opportunity – as Chinese demand for our minerals contributes to our prosperity. To Britain, does China look like an opportunity, or a crisis?
WH: China hardly figures in our internal political exchanges. However it is beginning to feel rather menacing – challenging the west in Africa, out of control greenhouse gas emissions and endless cheap exports. China is a problem; it is just the best policy is to stay open.
PerC: The very significant human links between Britain and India would make the growth of India look more benign, I imagine. But let me ask you an impossible question about the two Asian giants. Which do you think is the bigger difference between them: that India is English-speaking, or that India is democratic?
WH: India’s democracy is the key difference. I think that China’s institutional failings – whether on the rule of law or just lack of accountability of decision makers – is becoming more and more disabling. The Chinese inflation rate is at a 10 year high, but the usual solutions – monetary and fiscal tightening – are impossible because of risk to the banking and political system. As a result the response has to be administrative – banking controls, price and wage controls – but they are not working. The China crisis is upon us.
PerC: Six years after the terrorist attacks on New York, the threat in the United Kingdom is still very real. Does Brown’s political style tell us anything useful about how to marry strength as a virtue with progressive politics?
WH: I think Brown is genuinely trying to find a way through. Terrorism does demand more surveillance and more capacity to detain suspects, but we have to find ways of doing this while retaining Enlightenment principles on liberty. Brown understands this, and deserves credit for the solutions he is attempting.
PerC. Finally Will we must ask you this. Was a badly designed market for elite players, or failure to invest in the human capital of grassroots participants, the bigger cause of Australia’s dreadful failure at the Rugby World Cup?
WH: You were very, very unlucky. But the heart of the problem was your lack of a powerful front row and the way the English took your scrum apart. Maybe having to compete with Australian rules football and rugby league means that coaches find it difficult to get boys at school to volunteer to play in positions that are less glamorous and fun than having the opportunity to run with the ball – especially when there are two other viable options. Your scrum was the weakest of the big five; your three quarters arguably the most creative. Put the front row right and you will be champions. Although after the last Ashes series when we were tonked 5-0, I have to say this was a small consolation. You Australians are so bloody good at sport, you have to give the rest of us a chance now and again.