When Gordon Brown assumed official residence in 10 Downing Street on Wednesday, it was for real not just for Tony Blair’s convenience.
Back in 1997, when Blair swept into power, Britain’s most famous address was left for the new Chancellor of the Exchequer; Blair chose to live in the larger quarters of 11 Downing Street (the Chancellor’s traditional residence) to accommodate his young family.
This time, however, it wasn’t just a house swap.
Indeed, if you believe what Brown had to say upon arriving in Downing Street on Wednesday, the occasion marked the start of ‘ a new government with new priorities’. ‘Let the work of change begin,’ was the clarion call from the new Prime Minister a task now underway after yesterday’s extensive cabinet reshuffle.
Yet for all the talk of a ‘handover’, there was no handshake between Brown and Blair on the steps of Number 10 to mark what has been an orderly transfer of power. After all, constitutional protocol dictates that the office of Prime Minister is the ‘gift’ of Her Majesty and not a gift from an incumbent to a successor.
The closest thing to a handover took place over the weekend, at a specially convened Labour Party conference in Manchester. It was there that we saw Brown’s long-awaited political coronation, and his leadership of the Party made official.
Quite aptly, Brown was introduced, to the enthusiastic applause of Labour activists, by the man he would replace as Prime Minister. The symbolism of Blair physically vacating the conference stage to his Chancellor and long-time rival wasn’t lost on observers.
Nor was the timbre and tone with which Brown delivered his first speech as Labour leader.
Over the years, much has been said about the contrast between Brown and Blair. Blair: the impeccable performer, the barrister whose powers of persuasion and charisma conquered almost all before him. Brown: the serious and dour Scot, a politician who never looked comfortable smiling, and who always sported a sweaty brow under the heat of the spotlight.
It’s never been a flattering contrast, one which Brown has always sought to deflect by emphasising substance over style.
If his Manchester speech is anything to go by, the early indications are that Brown will bring a different substance as well as style to the Prime Ministership. He has already struck an interesting note, calling for the ‘soul’ to be put back into New Labour. Declaring himself a ‘conviction politician,’ he spoke about ‘the driving power of social conscience,’ ‘the better angels of our nation,’ ‘moral sense,’ and ‘civic duty.’
It’s not the first occasion Brown has spoken about soul and the importance of a moral compass in politics. He is after all ‘a son of the manse’; his father a Presbyterian preacher.
Yet it is also a timely rhetorical move. Brown’s embrace of civic duty, social justice, and political moralism has re-energised Labour supporters who, for a long time, have been divided by Blair’s intervention in Iraq, weary of protracted leadership tensions, and wary of a resurgent Conservative Party led by David Cameron. The idea of bringing back ‘soul’ is vague at best, but it touches on some of the old-fashioned Democratic Socialist values which many Party faithful believe have been squeezed out by Blair.
But it would be a mistake to read Brown’s soul-speak as signalling an abandonment of New Labour a programme of which he has been a primary architect. He is well aware that the imperative for his leadership will be to renew New Labour, a brand at real risk of dating after 10 years in government.
Indeed, Brown’s core message was of looking to the future: ‘We were reborn under Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair because we believed that to change the country we as a Party had to change. And once again we are called to be the Party of change.’ It was not ‘the New Labour way,’ Brown said, to go back to the homilies of Old Labour. ‘If people think we will achieve our goals in the future by retreating to failed approaches of the past, then they have not learned the lesson I have learned from the last 10 years.’
In other words, a Labour soul needn’t repudiate New Labour.
Herein lies the key challenge for Brown: ensuring that New Labour’s grip on British political culture isn’t squandered through an exhaustion of political possibilities.
Brown has outlined a new policy priority for his Prime Ministership addressing an emergent housing crisis through increased social housing and assistance to those wishing to get a step on the property ladder. This, along with ongoing reform of the National Health Service (NHS) and increased funding to State education, will likely form the core of an early Brown domestic agenda.
But perhaps just as significant will be the language Brown will use to push his policy programme.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown spoke often about ‘active citizenship’ and the challenge of ‘involving and engaging the British people and forging a shared British national purpose that can unify us all.’ As Prime Minister, Brown has hinted at constitutional reforms to give more power to Parliament, and signalled the introduction of ‘citizens’ juries’ to give ordinary people direct influence over public decisions locally. ‘The power of Government,’ Brown said on Sunday, ‘can never substitute for the empowerment of people.’
Renewal is, in this sense, more than just a matter of language. For Brown, the embrace of citizenship and the restoration of public trust in Government is nothing if not the crux of building a ‘progressive consensus.‘ Whether Brown can succeed in this will be the true test of him as a Prime Minister. Much will depend on how well Brown can tell a story his fellow Britons can believe in to articulate a sense of the shared collective purpose to which he has so frequently alluded.
He has a sound basis on which to do so. In the last decade, New Labour has delivered a more prosperous, tolerant and dynamic Britain a legacy of which Brown is now the chief guardian. Yet it is also a legacy that has been much undermined by the failure that was, and is, Iraq. The rest of 2007 should offer us some answers as to whether the heart and soul of the New Labour project might still yet be reclaimed.
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