From the June 10, 2009 Spectator (London)
June 10, 2009
by Irwin Stelzer
Now that Gordon Brown is determined to go down with the Labour ship, or to sink it, if you believe his harshest critics, he might want to consider a few things he can do in the short time left to him at Number 10 to enable historians to be kinder to him. Leave office he might be forced to do after the general election he has so long resisted. But it remains open to him to do so with a sense of satisfaction that, on present form, will be denied him.
Of course, nothing is certain in politics. Remember Harry Truman, who in my country took a victory turn thumbing his nose at headlines announcing that he had lost the 1948 election? Or John Major in yours? Two developments might save the Prime Minister’s bacon.
The Tories might self-destruct — David Cameron buys a gas-guzzling Hummer, or George Osborne files for bankruptcy after an unsustainable personal borrowing spree. Not likely. More possible, but still in the unlikely category, would be an economic upturn. The green shoots sprouting might grow to mighty... whatever it is that green shoots grow into. House prices might turn up a bit, the rate of job destruction might ease, both of which would lift consumer confidence and hence retail sales. The banks might be able to follow their American counterparts’ lead and begin to repay the bailout money that the Treasury has made available. Credit might become easier. In short, a quick, sharp recovery could remind voters that they have a choice between a flawed Prime Minister who seems to have rescued the economy, albeit from a disaster partly of his own making, and a policy-light Tory party that plans to take the country to some destination it cannot or will not reveal.
But Brown should not bet on either of these long-shots. The Tories are probably capable of avoiding serious error, and the absence of specific policies has not so far dented their lead in the polls. And even if the economy does start to recover soon, the ‘feel-good factor’ won’t materialise for some time, especially since the jobs market is the last to improve in a recovery. Brown should, instead, do what his predecessors have done and his successors will do: concentrate on what has come to be called the Prime Minister’s legacy by taking steps that the nation urgently needs and that historians will applaud.
He can begin by retreating from a borrow-and-spend programme that will put a huge burden on this and future generations — higher taxes, rapid inflation, a possible return drop-in by the International Monetary Fund to do what Brown has not had the nerve to do: cut spending. Not now: he is right that a recession is not the time to cut spending. But it is the time to lay out a plan to rein in spending when the recovery takes hold. That is no easy thing for left-leaning politicians who always see reasons to expand the welfare state, and who, like my President, see this crisis as an opportunity to do just that.
But layering spending on infrastructure, health care, education, green projects and the rest of the left’s wish list on to stimulus spending is to propel debt to levels that current taxes cannot support. In
He could also end talk of innovation-crushing regulation of the financial services sector by, first, rejecting the various Franco-German proposals to reduce
The Prime Minister could then turn his attention to some of the institutional problems that he has thus far left unattended. In a country in which the House of Commons has no check on its transient passions or its sloppy legislative output, the House of Lords does not need reform — it needs to remain aloof from the daily hurly-burly. It isn’t a perfectly democratic institution, but unlike
Gordon, having nothing to lose by antagonising the remaining few MPs who do not loathe him, could also arrange a cull — reduce the number by, say, 50 in each of the next five years. Or some other number if that seems more likely to create a sense among voters and members themselves that an MP matters. But under no circumstances accede to those who want some form of proportional representation: if they persist, send them to
Finally, he could use the next year to restore
There is more, and if Gordon Brown concentrates on how he will be viewed by those who will write the history of the New Labour era, he will find other things to do. That requires rising above the petty concerns that have somehow distracted him from the pursuit of a reputation in which his children could take pride when they gather round him on a cold Christmas in Kirkcaldy some years hence.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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