Gordon Brown’s announcement on Monday that he is resigning as Labour leader brings to an end an often turbulent three years as prime minister.
But it signifies much more than that. It draws a line under a period of more than 20 years in which Mr Brown has been one of the dominant figures in British political and public life – first as one of the architects of New Labour, then as chancellor and finally as the occupant of 10 Downing Street.
For much of those two decades, Mr Brown was, alongside Tony Blair, one half of the duopoly that transformed the Labour party and made it one of the most successful machines in modern politics. The alliance between the two – Mr Blair the communicator and persuader, Mr Brown the economic strategist and preacher – made for a powerful combination that often swept all before it.
But at the heart of this duo was one fatal flaw: Mr Brown’s burning determination that Mr Blair must step aside and allow him the top job in government. After years of pressing Mr Blair to give way, Mr Brown finally succeeded in July 2007.
But hubris was soon followed by nemesis. Having reached Number 10, the unelected premier stumbled repeatedly, ultimately failing last week to take Labour to a fourth successive general election victory.
Mr Brown’s advocates will argue that he must be recognised for three achievements in the past 13 years. First, as chancellor, he gave independence to the Bank of England and kept Britain out of the single European currency. He stuck remorselessly to this view on the euro at a time when many around him – most notably Mr Blair and Peter Mandelson – argued that Britain should enter. As Europe this week comes to terms with the implications of the Greek bail-out, many in Britain will judge that history is on Mr Brown’s side.
Second, his allies will argue that in 2002 he resurrected the National Health Service from the chronic underfunding seen in the late 1990s, raising billions in taxation to take health spending to the European average as a proportion of GDP.
Mr Brown’s critics will argue that this cash injection took place without any serious accompanying reform of NHS management – something Mr Brown resisted – and that billions were wasted.
The final achievement – and the one that will be most recognised overseas – is the role he played in the global financial crisis. In October 2008, Mr Brown was widely hailed for his decision to launch a recapitalisation plan for British banks, a move comprehensively followed by Germany, France, Italy and a further 12 European countries. Both this, and the pioneering role he played in launching the G20 group of countries to deal with the crisis, are well recognised by world leaders.
For all of that, Mr Brown’s detractors highlight much on the debit side.
The principal charge against him is that he leaves office with Britain facing its most serious fiscal crisis since the second world war. Mr Brown’s mantra as chancellor was that there must be no return to Tory “boom and bust”. The phrase came to haunt him mercilessly as the boom years that dominated New Labour’s first decade ended in recession and a bloated state. There are other failings. His obsession with micro-managing every aspect of government, relying on a small coterie of allies, led to him being dubbed a Stalinist by Lord Turnbull, formerly head of the civil service.
An equal obsession with micro-managing the economy – whether over industrial grants or the operation of the tax and welfare system – eroded the support of entrepreneurs for New Labour.
Above all, in what was in many ways his greatest weakness as prime minister, he failed to win the sympathy and support of the electorate.
Yet for all his flaws, one thing cannot be doubted: Mr Brown has for 20 years been a giant on the British political landscape, a Gladstonian figure with a constant claim to a “moral compass”.
It will be decades, perhaps, before Britain again produces a political thinker and strategist on this scale.
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