Steve Richards: Terrified of nationalisation, Brown heads for a nightmare

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The Independent Online

It seems Gordon Brown is determined still to find a buyer for Northern Rock, with Virgin the most likely new owner. Evidently, Mr Brown cannot bear the prospect of even a temporary nationalisation. Although he insists all options are open he cannot yet utter the words "state ownership". Instead, he is frantically trying to secure a sale, apparently seeking a convoluted deal involving Richard Branson, the sale of bonds and a lot of finger-crossing.

Mr Brown's fear of state ownership has an echo of Tony Blair's weak support of the US over Iraq. Brown is not looking at Northern Rock with a clear-sighted objectivity. His thoughts are shaped by a terror of acting as Labour did in the 1970s. He formed his approach to politics partly by defining himself against the corporatist socialism of that decade and cannot face intervening on such an epic scale now.

As far as he is concerned, the situation is made worse by the Tories' persistent opposition to state ownership of Northern Rock. Although the Tories have no alternative policy, he is scared of their taunts about areturn to the past.

Mr Blair was the same in the build-up to the war against Iraq. Do not believe all his proclamations that he believed passionately in the war as a matter of deep rooted principle. His starting point was that it would be disastrous for Labour to be seen as hostile to the US as it was in the vote-losing 1980s.

Mr Blair discovered a passion for the war after he decided timidly he would never break with President George Bush. If the EU had been calling for an invasion and the US had been opposed, Mr Blair would have sided with the US in opposing military action. He was influenced also by the fact that the Tories were gung-ho for war. He would have been in a quandary if they had been against. Tony Blair's Chicago speech on international intervention, cited often as the ideological case for war, was flexible enough to have justified a decision to oppose military action if the US and the Tories had been less keen.

We all know what followed in Iraq. Whenever Mr Blair and Mr Brown act out of a fear of Labour's past, rather than on the basis of the objective case in front of them, trouble follows. Mr Brown would be better advised to nationalise Northern Rock, establish a period of calm, and sell off the bank when a clear, simple and relatively straightforward deal is secured. It is possible the taxpayer would make a profit rather than risk unpredictable losses. Similarly Mr Blair would have been better advised to oppose Bush rather than tamely follow him. Under the guise of courage, Mr Blair was fearful of the 1980s.

The past is a treacherous guide. In an attempt to avoid the mistakes of Labour's dark phase in the 1970s, Mr Brown is heading for a nightmare over Northern Rock.