The Summer of 2008 is set to be a pleasing re-run of the final months of Callaghan’s government in the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79. We will all suffer, but none more so than Gordon Brown, and it will be worth putting up with our hardships to see the growing misery of our unpleasant leader. It will last longer than Callaghan’s, but then Callaghan was guilty only of mistakes and of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gordon Brown deserves all he gets, and there is a real pleasure in watching him having to chew the ashes of his ambitions under the glare of the media spotlight.
It is hard now to convey the reaction to the announcement of Harold Wilson’s resignation as Prime Minister. I hated Wilson, blaming him for the dull greyness of my student years, years of industrial unrest, high taxation with no visible benefit, terrorist fears, ever more pervasive state control of business and the individual, and the growth of a bureaucracy which gave enormous power over daily life to a class of people whom one despised. The country felt oppressed, as much from the attitude of government towards the governed as from the tangible marks of oppression. It felt, in other words, a Brown unpleasant land, a preview of what we have now.
I was watching the television news on that afternoon of 16 March 1976 in our little rented student house in Jericho in Oxford. Much as I hated him and everything he stood for, Wilson’s resignation seemed to remove a certainty. The Heath years 1970 to 1974 barely seemed to interrupt Wilson’s reign which went back to 1964 – the whole of my teenage years and beyond. The Blair decade must feel the same to those now in their early 20s.
Their departures were very different – Wilson’s sudden and unexpected, Blair’s a long, slow death at the hands of a treacherous colleague; Wilson, as we now know, with the first signs of Alzheimers, Blair with nothing worse than creative amnesia; Wilson to be followed by the likable and straightforward James Callaghan, Blair by the patently unpleasant and dishonest Gordon Brown. No-one, as I recall it, questioned Callaghan’s right to be PM on the strength of a purely internal Labour party election or expected him to legitimise his position by a General Election, even though the party itself had a Commons minority for much of his time. Callaghan, of course, had held all four great offices of state and had a deep and wide experience of government – another marked contrast with Gordon Brown
The parallels are there, however, Callaghan was expected to call an election in the Autumn of 1978, a brief window when the pollsters’ auguries were favourable. He decided against calling an election – or, as we would now say, bottled it. That decision finished his Government and put Labour out of power for 20 years – which is why I find cause for optimism in recent events.
Labour then felt like an old ship. It floated, just, but the timbers creaked, no-one walked the decks or climbed the yards, and there was the whiff of corruption about it – corruption as in decay, not the type of corruption endemic in New Labour.
Then came the whistling winds of industrial unrest, hitting a decayed government in a long-stagnant economy. Two particular images – the unburied dead and the piles of uncollected rubbish in Leicester Square – served as icons for the rest of that strike-filled winter and, indeed, for Old Labour for the two following decades. Callaghan lost a vote of no confidence in March 1979, less than six months after passing up the chance of a General Election which would either have given him a stronger mandate or would have left his successor, Margaret Thatcher, with the winter’s problems.
Bottler Brown has already passed up the chance of an election on favourable terms. His time in office, so long and so desperately wanted (and in a style which ensured him contempt even before he became Prime Minister) has been hit by events outside his control as well as by those which result directly from his actions. His first few months appear like a re-run of Egypt’s Biblical plagues and are seen as his just deserts. The man who screwed pensioners and small shareholders, who lied repeatedly and taxed by stealth as Chancellor, who preached concern for hard-working families whilst emptying their pockets, and who created a dependency culture which made half the population the Government’s clients, deserves all that fate throws at him. And that is before one gets to his misjudgments, his inability to make a decision and his dislikable personal attributes.
He does not deserve the relatively quick end which Callaghan had, nor the personal liking Callaghan inspired even as Labour went down the pan for 20 years. That ten years of misery Brown suffered in waiting, and which he inflicted on Tony Blair and on us deserves a good long period of deeper misery in office. I wish him the rest of his term and, if it goes from bad to worse for the country as well, the country will recover as it did after Callaghan. Brown’s reputation will not recover, and New Labour will sink for another 20 years – I hope.