LONDON — The new tenant of Number 10 Downing Street is now all set to move in. With remarkable ease the new British prime minister, Gordon Brown, replaces the old one, Tony Blair, and life goes on in Britain as before.
Or does it? Rumors swirl around the Westminster scene about the changes that the new man may be contemplating. These will have to remain rumors for the next four weeks — until June 27 to be precise. On that day Blair will visit the queen and tell her that he proposes to resign as her first minister. Within hours, or even minutes, Brown will be summoned to Buckingham Palace.
As the newly elected head of the majority party in the House of Commons, (in fact his election was uncontested) he will then be invited to form a government. That is the formal and ritual part.
The informal part will be a frenzy of speculation about who will be “in” and who will be “out” under the new leader. Some will have their hopes dashed. Others will have their dreams realized.
But what about policy? And what about the man himself? The legacy of Blair is not exactly a happy one, especially on the foreign side. It would not be an exaggeration to say that British foreign policy is a bit of a mess, with the Iraq war still going badly, with Atlantic relations turning sour and with arguments raging about the future direction of the European Union.
How will Brown cope with these headaches? What we know is that he is very clever and very quick. Some call him dour and sullen but this is not correct. His voice may be a tone or two lower than Blair’s and he may speak a bit more slowly (no bad thing when so many in public life just gabble away almost unintelligibly). But he has a subtle and witty mind and a formidable debating skill.
From hints dropped by those close to him, Brown seems to have a sense both of history and the way the world is going that many politicians lack. He appears to understand that the old international relationships, and the old patterns of power, are changing fast. He sees that the EU is not Britain’s only club and that links with the rising Asian powers are just as important, or even more so.
And he shares the widely held view in Britain that while friendship with the United States is important, it should be a friendship based on mutual respect and not subservience. He may therefore inch away a little faster from American policy in Iraq and accelerate the rundown in British troops, which has already begun and for which the British forces in Basra are now preparing.
That is the good news. The less good news is that Brown is firmly in the tradition of paternalist socialism. He believes, and keeps saying, that he can do good for his fellow citizens and that he knows what is good for them. He seems to see this in very personal terms. In his first speech as leader-elect he used the word “I” again and again. It was “I want this,” “I intend to do that” and “I know the other.”
This is a bad sign. Leading politicians today should be very humble and very conscious of the growing limits on their capacity to change things, as power becomes more and more dispersed and decentralized through the information revolution and the worldwide Web. Governments no longer have the monopoly of data. They are challenged at every turn by groups, large and small, that are empowered by the Internet and able to organize their own mass political power in an instant.
Old-style socialist paternalists believed in big government, embracing almost all aspects of people’s lives. But big government no longer works. The old levers that confident rulers used to think they could pull at the center now come off in the hand.
Brown’s best hope is to build a very good and loyal team. But that means he must cut down the “ego” flavor in his words and begin talking more about “we” rather than “I.” And it means showing real humility in face of the awesome and intractable issues all our societies face — such as world terrorism, religious extremism, crushing poverty and climate change.
Brown has been chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) for 10 years, during which time Britain has undoubtedly prospered. True, he has not made many mistakes — he has certainly avoided the kind of policy errors that gave Japan 10 years of economic stagnation. But he has had little to do with the forces that have carried Britain forward, especially London’s emergence as a world financial center and the international climate of competition and low inflation.
If Brown thinks that he has brought these things about, then he is under a delusion. In a sense, matters of economics and finance have been the easy bit over the last decade. The difficult bits have been the rise of geopolitical tensions, anarchic and irresponsible groups, the collapse of social solidarity, and the growth of e-enabled crime and terror on a global scale.
To navigate these dangerous waters the new British prime minister will need all the help he can get from all around. He cannot do it by himself. The media, who love to build up personalities, may depict him as the one and only — the shining figure at the top of the heap. But if he is truly wise he will remember each day that he is only one figure among many struggling to conduct the ever more difficult business of government. He is, in the Latin phrase, primus inter pares — first among equals, and no more than that. There will have to be less about “I” and more about “we” if he is to succeed.
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