Without prejudice to the outcome of this most unpredictable of elections, the task of surveying and assessing the legacy of Gordon Brown is certainly an important one. It is a task taken up - with wit, verve and erudition – by Christopher Harvie; senior academic, Member of the Scottish Parliament, and contemporary of Brown’s from the Scottish political and intellectual scene of the late 1970s. Whether Brown’s career survives the next seven days or not, Harvie’s latest book, “Broonland”, provides a valuable perspective on the broader context of this moment in Britain’s political history, and an insight into the role of one of the leading dramatis personae.
How did the Brown that Harvie once knew, a socialist steeped in the traditions of the Scottish Enlightenment and the Labour movement, become the neoliberal disciple of Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers that the rest of us came to know as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister? Who, really, is the man who in the late 1980s damned the Thatcher government for creating the very economic imbalances that were later entrenched under his own stewardship, and which led to the current financial and fiscal crises? These are questions that will keep historians of British politics interested for a long time to come. Harvie’s answer can perhaps be summarised as having three parts. First, on a philosophical level, Brown either misread or at least applied the wrong lessons of the Scottish Enlightenment and of Scottish socialist thought and experience. Second, in practical terms, Brown was tempted while in office by the easy gains for the public purse offered by the Thatcherite economy. And thirdly, Brown was personally as a politician too weak or unwilling to change the overall course that Thatcher had set. However, the real value of Harvie’s book is less as an analysis of the personal nature of Gordon Brown the politician and more as a broad and wide-ranging view of the socio-economic landscape bequeathed to us, at least in part, by his 13 years in office.
What Harvie finds is a society and an economy slowly collapsing under the hammer blows of the forces unleashed by Thatcherism and fed by New Labour. “Broonland” is a place where political deference to rampant greed in the private sector has seen the economy of what-we-can-make give way to the economy of what-I-can-take. So far so reasonably familiar, though no less important for that. But it is Harvie’s particular conceptual insight, the notion of “illegalism”, that synthesises the known factual record into something new and thought provoking. Under this reading, a lack of regulatory safeguards compounded by the severe under-resourcing of those tasked with policing the safeguards that do exist, gave rise to an economic culture forever hovering over the demarcating line between what is legal and what is not (with what is moral no more than a distant point on the horizon).
The culture of greed that spawned the outrages of Enron and Worldcom manifests itself in “Broonland” in the Farepak scandal, VAT fraud, BAe’s dealings with the Saudis, and elite tax avoidance on an epic scale. A financial system lubricated by the ill-gotten gains of white-collar piracy - legal or otherwise - and those extracted by an international kleptocracy from the peoples of Russia, Africa, the Middle East, brings forth a form of moral sewage which spews over the body politic and dissolves the fabric of society. While the wealthy game the system for astronomical sums, the poor – for want of what the elites would regard as mere loose change - slip ever further behind, consigned to a sink-estate world mired in drinking, drugs, gambling and petty crime, and with diminishing chances of escape.
The seedy, Hogarthian picture that Harvie paints is rich in at least one irony: the New Labour government that brought in the infamous Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, a government led by men who never failed to remind us of their “moral compass” and the piety of their upbringing and values, is a government that has presided over the triumph of an economic model – an economic culture - that is defined by its grotesquely anti-social nature. Who could claim otherwise at a time when the most vulnerable members of society are preparing themselves for a decade spent paying the gambling debts of the bankers? The richest 1,000 inhabitants of “Broonland” have seen their collective wealth (currently estimated at fully one third of a trillion pounds) grow by 30 per cent in the same year that the public has been endlessly lectured by its elders and betters about the need to accept “belt-tightening” and “austerity” as an unavoidable fact of life. If Goldman Sachs is, in the now famous description, “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”, then Harvie leaves us in little doubt that this description can just as easily be applied to any number of those who have prospered in Brown’s Britain during the last decade. How this can be squared with the moral vision of the ‘son of the manse’ is perhaps a question only Brown himself can answer.
One criticism that can be made of “Broonland” is that the arguments occasionally lack coherence, not through a lack of thought on the author’s part, but if anything through the opposite. The book can feel cluttered, even chaotic in parts, as theoretical, literary and historical references, personal reminiscences and seemingly just about any other idea that occurs to Harvie at the time of writing fly by at bewildering speed, often without development or explanation. This can be frustrating for the reader, and there are points where it is only Harvie’s witty, conversational style that persuades one to persevere. In the chapters where the argument is anchored to, or driven by, a clearer narrative structure, the writing settles down and becomes very readable indeed.
Is the problem that Harvie is trying to say too much, or just that he is trying to say everything at the same time? One solution might have been for him to select one or two key arguments that he wanted to make, and concentrate on developing those. The concept of “illegalism”, mentioned above, could have been such an organisational principle, employed to marshal the narrative and impose some coherence and focus. Another might have been the refreshing perspective that Harvie brings from outside of the capital. In “Broonland”, the “United Kingdom of London” as a financial centre becomes increasingly bloated, leaving the regions, Scotland and Wales to wither away rather than develop their own potential. There is a good passage towards the end of the book where Harvie suggests a possible way forward for Scotland in respect of these problems. But generally, ideas come and go in the book, where more clearly devoted chapters, each dedicated to exploring a selected key theme, might have made things clearer for the average reader.
However, stylistic criticisms aside, “Broonland” is without doubt a valuable contribution to our understanding of a chapter in our nation’s history whose significance may still not be fully realised. Because the sobering truth for Broonland’s Gin Lane is that, in the coming age of austerity - and as a glance over the English Channel demonstrates that the age of crisis has yet to fully play itself out - Harvie’s lament of societal breakdown may prove, not only descriptive, but even more prescient than we are currently allowing ourselves to imagine.
David Wearing is a PhD researcher in Political Science at the School of Public Policy, University College London. He writes for the The Guardian and is one of the organisers of the New Left Project.
Broonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown – Christopher Harvie, Verso, pp206, rrp £8.99