Opinion: Massive abilities and worrying flaws - Brown faces awesome challenges

Last updated at 23:52 27 June 2007


This paper has more than a little admiration for the achievements of Britain's new Prime Minister during his decade at the Treasury.



True, most of us are paying more tax than we would like - and more than we should. But only the most churlish would deny that, under Gordon Brown's stewardship, the British economy performed astonishingly well.

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Gordon Brown

A Chancellor from any other party would have been immensely proud to have presided over ten years of uninterrupted economic growth.

For a Labour Chancellor, belonging to a party with a dismal record on wealth creation, the achievement is not only unprecedented, but unlikely to be matched for as far ahead as any of us can see.

Now Mr Brown faces the greatest challenge of his life. He must bring the gifts he displayed at the Treasury - and many more - to the wider problems facing our country, both at home and abroad. The omens are good.

Already, Mr Brown has acknowledged that there can be no question of simply picking up the baton from Tony Blair and carrying on in the same old way.

Indeed, in his very first words as Prime Minister, he spoke more like an election victor who had just swept away a corrupt and unpopular administration than a man who had been part of it for ten years.

He promised "a new government with new priorities", speaking emphatically of the need for change: "Change in our NHS, change in our schools, change with affordable housing, change to build trust in government, change to protect and extend the British way of life."

Good. This is exactly what Britain needs. So how is it to be achieved?

First, it will mean restoring integrity, transparency and honesty to public life and rebuilding the mechanisms of democracy, sabotaged by Mr Blair and his propagandist-in-chief, Alastair Campbell.

It will mean showing respect for Parliament once again (and how typical of Mr Blair that he hasn't wasted a second in leaving the Commons - and betraying his constituents - now that his seat is no longer any use to him).

One of the most unedifying sights yesterday, symbolic of the phoniness to which the outgoing Prime Minister has reduced democratic debate in this country, was the standing ovation on both sides of the House (the Tories egged on by David Cameron!) to mark the departure of a man who has treated the Lords and Commons with utter contempt.

Lloyd George, Churchill and Thatcher weren't given such treatment. So why applaud this shallow showman?

For Mr Brown, rebuilding Britain will also mean tackling the crises in our public services openly and honestly, instead of fiddling the figures to try to cover up the problems. So no more dumbing-down exams, distorting crime statistics or lying about hospital waiting lists.

It will mean addressing those difficult tasks that Mr Blair chose to ignore during his ten wasted years, hoping they would go away of their own accord - how to look after our ageing population, secure our energy supplies, reform the welfare state and control our borders.

And yes, it will mean kicking some bad habits that Mr Brown himself has picked up during his long wait to reach the top.

For a start, it is in the very nature of the job that he will have to learn to delegate more - which in turn will mean surrounding himself with ministers and advisers who can be trusted. Here, the departures of Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett and Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt - as useless a pair as ever held high office in this land - bode nothing but well.

He must also correct the policy mistakes he has made over the years (and acknowledging that he is fallible - never his strong point! - would be a good start).

For all the new hospitals he has built, Mr Brown has shut his eyes for too long to the need to reform the ethos of the NHS - structured to meet the needs of 1948 and now buckling under the demands of 2007.

If merely pouring money into it were the solution, all its problems would have been solved long ago. But Mr Brown has tried that, and it's failed.

On the doorstep of No 10 yesterday, when he spoke of the need for change, he came close to acknowledging that. We shall learn over the coming months if he matches the action to his words.

He must also face the fact that his tax raids on Britain's pension funds have contributed to the crisis now upon us. Is it too much to hope that he will authorise his successor at the Treasury urgently to address the parlous state of our private pension schemes, compared to the

inflation-linked retirement guaranteed to the public sector?

As for his tax credits, introduced to help the needy and deserving, they've proved far too complicated, wasting billions through overpayments and fraud. In many cases, they've had the opposite effect of what this principled son of the manse intended.

They've propped up a tax and welfare system that positively encourages family breakdown by rewarding single mothers and punishing married couples.

Indeed, family policy is one area in which Mr Cameron's Tories stand head and shoulders above Labour.

If Mr Brown is as wise as we hope he is, he will set about winning back lost ground by rebalancing the system to favour stable families and hard workers.

Above all, this arch-centraliser must acknowledge that no, the gentlemen in Whitehall don't know best. Over the past ten years, power has drifted too far from the people. Mr Brown now has his opportunity to start giving it back.

Meanwhile abroad, change will mean putting our dealings with the U.S. on a new footing. By all means, let Mr Brown keep up the Special Relationship - but as George Bush's honest partner and friend, not his poodle.

The same goes for Europe, where Mr Blair has handed his successor a bitterly poisoned chalice. Should Mr Brown go ahead and ask Parliament to ratify the new version of the European Constitution, agreed in principle by Mr Blair in Brussels last weekend? Or should he call the referendum promised to the British people at the last election?

As this paper has repeatedly stressed, we believe he should honour his party's word. As the decision day draws closer, we shall see if he has the courage to do so.

Another desperately difficult problem for Mr Brown is the Scottish question. Let him never forget that the great majority of the English electorate voted Tory last time - a fact of which they are reminded every time the Scottish Executive approves a drug denied to patients south of the border, or authorises another perk for Scots at the southern taxpayers' expense.

As a Scot himself, the longer Mr Brown allows this unfairness to continue, the more trouble he will store up for himself.

Oh, and he should beware of surrounding himself with too many Scottish ministers. He doesn't want to look like an occupying power, does he?

To sum up, there are huge problems ahead of the new Prime Minister - and if he carries on in the same way as Mr Blair, he will be betraying his place in history.

Mr Brown's strengths are his will-power, his intellect, his understanding of economics and an innate integrity. His weaknesses - and they are considerable - are his obsession with centralising, which places more emphasis on the state than the family as a means of changing people's lives; a reluctance to delegate; and an insistence on hugging all power to himself.

The Labour Party, however, is very lucky to have him - and the Tories would do well not to underestimate this dour but formidable Scot.

He deserves a fair wind. We wish him well.

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