AFTER 10 years and a month, Britain today gets a new prime minister. For many Britons including members of the governing Labour Party, this has not come a day too soon.
Fatigued by too many years of Blairite spin and mirrors, voters had expected – indeed, been promised – Tony Blair’s successor only to be disappointed repeatedly.
But at least the play stuck to the script of Blair being succeeded by the strongest contender for the premiership, Gordon Brown, rather than the deputy prime minister.
The personal rivalry between Brown and Blair for party and then national leadership had been in play since 1994.
There were times when it seemed more prominent, as in the 2001 election, or more subdued, as in the 2005 poll.
On several occasions in the past several years, Blair was supposed to have stepped down and made way for Brown, only to frustrate him. Blair must have wanted a full 10 years in office for headline writers to refer to “the Blair decade.”
That would have been a typical Blair PR ploy, except that in his closing years his reputation fell apart. The Iraq fiasco and the cash-for-honours scandal in particular, and the dumbing down of British dignity by morphing into a “Bush poodle,” easily saw to that.
Ever the gee-whiz ringmaster with the toothy “Cheshire cat” grin, Blair was the super-salesman in a serious premiership job. The problem of fit discomforted the world, then Britons, and eventually himself.
The political goods Blair was peddling was not always saleable, unlike the peerages, and it ultimately showed.
The day had to come when everyone realised Britain deserved better than a scandal-prone, sound-bite leadership.
And so Gordon Brown was the man. The pendulum swing from Blair pop to Brown classical seems polar in proportions, but was not meant to be so.
Where Blair was seen as superficial, Brown is said to be analytical. When Blair was sketchy with a penchant for gut responses, Brown seems introspective, with attention to detail and likely implications.
But these are essentially differences in personality and style rather than substantive policy. Blair is not without some policy achievements, notably the settlement in Northern Ireland, yet these could be interpreted as collective Cabinet actions rather than the product of individual genius.
Blair’s failures and successes, and scandals, could thus be shared by his Cabinet colleagues including Brown. So Brown could only be a heavier shade of Blair.
Their policy differences could only be minimal, as symbolised by a slight change in postal address as James Gordon Brown moves next door from No. 11 to No. 10 Downing Street. Although much remains to be seen, some signs of the new Brown premiership have already been visible.
Brown’s BBC interview last Friday apologising for Britain’s “mistakes” in Iraq tends to be seen as his regret for Britain’s role in the war. But he “apologised” only for the hasty dismantling of the Ba’ath military structure, not for the invasion or occupation.
So what was Brown actually apologising for, and to whom? Besides acknowledging his shared responsibility for these mistakes, he was apologising for the unexpectedly high US and British casualties that resulted from such hasty actions.
Brown has pledged to work more for British rather than purely trans-Atlantic interests, while reaffirming the importance of the Anglo-American partnership.
Time will tell how different this is from Blairism, with or without Brownite spin.
Blair’s retirement had prompted speculation about what he should do next, from World Bank president to West Asian peace envoy. British writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft found it hard to say which of these Blair is “most unqualified for.”
A sense of continuity or complementarity seems expected of Brown. The ban on fox hunting came with Blair, and the ban on smoking in public places is coming with Brown.
When Blair saw to the “independence” of the House of Lords by ending the house voting rights of hereditary peers, Brown gave independence to the Bank of England to set interest rates. Whether in step with Blair or not, Brown has tended to field the weightier issues.
And when Blair scored on Northern Ireland, peace in West Asia awaits Brown’s touch.
That is a formidable challenge for anyone, but Britain has to be seen to rise to the occasion at least if its international standing is to be preserved, or rather resurrected.