LONDON — In Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has clearly announced the time when he will depart from office. In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has left the time of his departure wide open. Therein lies the difference, and the core, of the deep problems currently besetting the British Labour government.
The British Labour Party is now in danger of falling into three camps: those who want Blair to go as soon as possible and make way for his eager would-be successor and erstwhile closest political friend, Gordon Brown; those who want Blair to stay a good while yet; and those who cannot make up their minds but just feel very uneasy at the unsettled state of affairs.
Their unease has been compounded by a very poor showing for Labour in the recent local government elections and by the growing success and appeal of the Conservative opposition party under the youthful David Cameron. It has been further compounded by Blair’s response to these setbacks by dismissing or downgrading several of his key Cabinet colleagues.
The aim is obviously to try to give the government a fresh face and to draw a line under past policy failures, especially in the crucial areas of foreign policy, where nothing seems to be going right for Blair, and on the home front, where appalling administrative errors have allowed hundreds of potentially dangerous criminals to roam free.
Over the whole turbulent political scene hangs the brooding presence of the Finance Minister Brown, an enormously clever and openly ambitious man, with a dour wit but no humility at all, waiting his moment. Some say he will make a better prime minister than Blair and will restore the government’s fortunes.
Others are not so sure. They point to some serious policy errors he has made as chancellor of the exchequer, including his ill-timed attack on pension funds, his decision to sell a large portion of Britain’s gold stocks while the market was at bottom, his move to raise taxes on North Sea oil just when incentives to produce more oil were needed and many other slipups. They also point to his apparent lack of charm compared with the charismatic Blair. But all agree that he is a powerful figure and that his time must come. Besides, whether he has made mistakes or not, the British economy is in reasonably good shape overall and people feel prosperous. Brown is bound to claim credit for this state of affairs and has not hesitated to do so.
Switch now to what may seem like a completely unrelated event, namely the death last week of the famous American thinker, Jane Jacobs, at age 89. What has that to do with Brown and his ambitions? The answer lies in a deeply profound insight that Jacobs offered in one of her best known books “Cities and the Wealth of Nations.”
Although probably best known for her views on city life and urban vitality, Jacobs had this to say about wealth creation and government attempts to manage economies and “deliver” economic growth — and she wrote this well before the information revolution and the onset of globalization: “Nations” are political and military entities and so are blocs of nations. But it does not necessarily follow that they are the basic, salient entities of economic life or that they are particularly useful for probing the mysteries of economic structure and the reasons for the rise and decline of wealth. Indeed, the failure of national governments and blocs of nations to force economic life to do their bidding suggests some sort of essential irrelevance.”
With these words Jacobs, with enormous foresight, was clearly spelling out the epitaph of national economic management so beloved by the previous generation and made so fashionable by Lord Keynes. She saw it was not governments or nations, but cities and communities and their inner dynamics that drove enterprise and innovation and growth. Yet Brown, by his every utterance, shows that he believes the opposite. He believes that national economies can indeed be neatly managed and steered to produce growth and that he is the man at the helm of the good ship Britain.
Jacobs saw the fallacy in this posture, which is 10 times more evident today as globalization establishes a network or mesh of economic linkages that disregard all national frontiers.
In short, the Brown position and reputation is based on a delusion. His claims are fatally flawed. For a while he has been able to dazzle the world with rapid-fire words and with undisputed results. But in the more exposed position of prime minister, this key weakness would be swiftly revealed.
This would be vastly to the advantage and delight of the Conservative opposition, but would spell the certain end of Labour’s decade or so of rule. Hence the deep dismay within Labour ranks at the present uncertainty and the ambivalence about whether to change leaders or keep the one they have.
The only person who could resolve this is Blair, by making crystal clear his intentions as to whether he intends to stay or go, and if so, when. Unfortunately Blair looks highly unlikely to do this, so that the torment of Labour’s supporters will continue until either Blair finally goes or the next general election puts them out of their misery. That could still be three to four years away.
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