Gordon Brown, Britain’s new prime minister, is facing a political dilemma: Should he call an election this year or early next year, or should he serve out the full time left–two and a half years–to this parliament? It is a tricky question.
It is not whether he would win this election: The polls show his Labor Party would be returned with a reduced majority, energizing the Liberal Party and positioning the major opposition party, the Conservatives, for a win in five years. Any weakness in an election would suggest that the Labor administration is losing favor with the British public.
Labor has had a long and successful run, most of it under Tony Blair, but there are problems building in Britain. Putting aside the unpopularity of the Iraq war, there are social issues, long-term concerns about the economy, and simple weariness with a party that has ruled for more than a decade. Electorates get restless and bored if the same party stays in power too long. The Conservatives found this after Margaret Thatcher left office, and the same may be true for Brown’s government.
The smart money is on a new election. If Brown wins it easily, he will be confirmed as his own man, rather than Blair’s designated successor, and he will be empowered to pursue goals close to his own heart. These include putting more space between himself and the United States, and a serious commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also would like to pursue goals of social justice for the British by modernizing, and possible extending, the programs of the welfare society.
At the top of this list is the National Health Service (NHS). During Blair’s government, when Brown was the finance minister, substantial new money was allocated to the health service and it has shown some improvement. But recent studies indicate that much of this improvement was to doctors’ and NHS administrators’ salaries. The speed of health care delivery improved, but not as much as Brown had hoped. It is said in Britain that the health service is great if you have a heart attack, and a disaster if you have an ingrown toenail. Brown would like to see a more efficient health service. But he has learned that it can absorb money with little improvement, if the structure goes unchanged.
Brown is brilliant, reserved, and does not have his predecessor’s capacity to suffer fools. He can appear rude and uninterested if his intellectual standards are not met.
A Scottish socialist, who came up in the trade union movement, Brown is all business, sometimes humorless, and notably lacking in political small talk. When I met Brown, I found him to be a man interested in big projects and very confident of his own judgment. At the time, he was pushing for a $50-billion relief fund for Africa. When I asked him how this money would not be wasted, as so much else has been, he snapped, “We’ll give it to the right people.” He does not care to have grand schemes he endorses questioned. Yet, you get the feeling that there is something wise about Brown, that he is more genuine than Blair, and more removed than most politicians from the day-to-day business of politics.
It is not difficult to imagine Brown as an American businessman. It is much harder to imagine Brown as an American politician, negotiating the frothy waters of sound bites and political correctness.
Where Brown may differ most profoundly from contemporary politicians, including his former leader, is that he believes that the state can deliver. Brown has shown none of Blair’s enthusiasm for private business. Nor has he shown any of Blair’s enthusiasm for the world stage, leaving the business of government to his cabinet.
For domestic political reasons, Brown appears intent on setting a course away from America, although it would be wrong to say that he is anti-American. He has traveled here often, and has vacationed on Cape Cod. “He likes the place, but doesn’t always agree with it,” a British political observer told me.
Domestically, Brown has the problem of coming to power at the end of a long period of economic prosperity. The pound is strong and unemployment is low. But the country has been seriously shaken by the collapse of one of its large mortgage lenders, Northern Rock. The Rock took a beating in the liquidity crunch that followed the sub-prime mortgage debacle in the United States. Brown also has to deal with divisive issues of immigration, Islamic terrorism, and public loutishness, which are causing native Britons to leave in droves.
While Labor Party faithfuls feel Brown should ensure five years of government by calling an election right away, the canny prime minister may be worried about the danger of opening so many wounds at this time.