It was brief but revealing; a mere skirmish, but an amuse-gueule for the battles to come. The Chancellor's speech last Wednesday barely deserves to be called a Budget. The fiscal measures were minor: nothing there to rebut those who claim that the annual Budget is now an empty ritual. But Mr Brown had no interest in framing a conventional Budget. He had three objectives: a leadership bid, a statement of political philosophy and an expression of political antagonism.
The leadership element explains the shamelessness. Mr Brown spent far more time on the England cricket Xl - how many players could he name? - and the memorial to the July 7 victims than he did on either pensions or the NHS. As so often recently, he was trying to persuade us that he is a rounded person, and not just a desiccated calculating machine. But he cannot help striking false notes.
A few months ago, Gordon Brown came across a new concept: patriotism. He realised that a lot of his fellow countrymen felt that way and that many of them were suspicious of the Labour Party's patriotic credentials. No problem; Mr Brown had encountered patriotism in the US. There, people often fly the Stars and Stripes, and many gardens have a flagpole. There is also an annual Veteran's Day. So Mr Brown thought that he would demonstrate his patriotism by suggesting that we should do the same here.
Whether you believe that this is cynicism or naivety, one conclusion is self-evident. The man has no understanding of patriotism. Modes of patriotic expression are not part of a globalised economy. They grow out of a nation's history, its culture, its traditions, its habitual way of doing things. The Americans and the French have their own methods of proclaiming public patriotism. Over there, they can seem impressive and moving. But they would not work here.
One would have thought that a Presbyterian Scot like Gordon Brown would understand why: British reticence. But it is not clear how much Gordon Brown does understand about the world outside his own head. This helps to explain a paradox. This is not only a highly intelligent man, but a formidably well-read one. Yet his own views are incoherent and contradictory.
Mr Brown often tells us about his belief in competition. He enjoys travelling in the United States and admires its success in productivity growth, job creation and encouraging small business. He also knows how bad the continental Europeans are at all three and enjoys telling them so. There, his Presbyterianism does come through. Mr Brown relishes the opportunity to give economic hell-fire sermons to European audiences; there were several swipes at Europe in Wednesday's text.
The theory is admirable. There is only one problem. It bears no relation to the practice. Here, Gordon Brown's psychology comes into play. A compulsive, indeed obsessive, worker, he believes that nothing worthwhile can be achieved without immense effort. In this case, however, he is wrong. There was no need to spend thousands of hours studying the US economy. The answer was all around him, if only he had looked rather than burying himself in statistical tables. America works better because government does less.
A government has vital tasks. Sound money; a low tax regime which does not discourage enterprise; investment in infrastructure, including social infrastructure: those are essential. But when it comes to the labour market, government interference destroys jobs.
Gordon Brown is temperamentally incapable of accepting that. He talks as if he would like to tell every businessman how to run his business and every family how to run its budget (I wonder if even he understands the tax credit system). As all these people cannot enjoy the benefit of his physical presence, he will provide the best possible alternative: a constant supply of new laws, rules and regulations to relieve them of the terrible responsibility of making their own decisions. It is nonsense, and dangerously so. Despite his claims to the contrary, the consequences of Mr Brown are taking Britain towards European sclerosis and away from American prosperity.
That is not his only crime. While the Chancellor has been interfering where he had no business to do so, tens of billions of pounds have been wasted. He has been responsible for the largest-ever peace-time increase in public spending, but he has done almost nothing to raise standards. Instead, much of the cash appears to have gone straight down without touching the sides. Never has so much been spent on so little.
Mr Brown now tells us that average expenditure per capita in state secondary schools should be increased to public school levels. That would only cost about 3 per cent of national income, less than the savings identified in the Gershon report, which Mr Brown himself commissioned. But what guarantee is there that the money would be well spent?
Before the 1998 Russian crash, two oligarchs met. The first of them examined the second one's tie. "How much did you pay for that?" "$200." "Hah: if you'd gone to my tailor, it would have cost you $300." That is Gordon Brown's philosophy of public spending.
But his speech pleased the Labour Party, as did his obvious disdain for David Cameron. Here, we are dealing with a displacement activity. Over the years, Gordon Brown has expressed more antagonism towards Tony Blair than any previous cabinet minister had to a previous premier, at least while still in his job. Even so, that was only a small percentage of the bitterness which the Chancellor felt. So he is now using David Cameron as an outlet.
Mr Brown is also convinced of his own moral superiority. Although he has not said so in such terms, we are led to believe that he would instantly purge Downing Street of Blairite corruption. Unfortunately for Gordon Brown, there is evidence to the contrary. It has been in the public domain since Andrew Rawnsley published Servants of the People in 2000. This is what he has to say about Bernie Ecclestone's donation of £1m to Labour Party funds. "[In] an interview on the Today programme... asked whether Bernie Ecclestone had given money to the Labour Party, Brown replied: 'You'll have to wait and see, like I'll have to wait and see when the list is published. I've not been told and I certainly don't know what the truth is.'
"The Chancellor did know the truth and he had not told it. He returned to the Treasury that morning in a red mist which staggered even those who had long endured his titanic tempers. 'Gordon went mental,' says one witness. Brown raged at his staff: 'I lied. I lied. My credibility will be in shreds. I lied. If this gets out I'll be destroyed.' "
That did not happen. The Rawnsley account does destroy any claim which Mr Brown might have to be cleaner than Mr Blair.Reuse content