Lord Acton’s cynical but truthful premise that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men” is the explanation for the travails of Britain’s beleaguered Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  The problem is that, unlike his immediate predecessor, Gordon Brown has been corrupted in the pursuit and retention of power not because he has no base ideology but because the fulfilment of ambition caused him to cast his principles aside.

Tony Blair hardly had a principle in his body – from the beginning of his political career to its end power alone was the goal and his formidable political and communications skills allowed him to achieve it. Blair was not just an actor (although he certainly was a formidable performer on every stage) he also had a good combination of cunning and high intelligence to drive him on. Whilst Blair may seem intellectually lightweight this is not because he lacks exceptional intelligence – you don’t get into Oxford University unless you are academically very smart. But Blair was the ultimate pragmatist and he knew that to carry any deep-felt ideological baggage with him would inhibit his need to twist and turn on almost every issue to ensure his political advancement. Tony Blair’s background was solid English middle class with a strong sprinkling of Scottish elitism thrown in – largely from his very superior Edinburgh public school Fettes College. His father, despite solid working class roots, became a Conservative and there is no evidence that his son was ever an issue-driven socialist. Indeed is was quite common during his first term as Prime Minister for Conservative friends of mine to say that Blair should really have been Leader of the Conservative Party. And this has the ring of truth about it – he would have made a good Tory Premier the only difference being that as a Conservative he would have had to tame the wild men of the Right in his party whereas as Labour leader he had to tame the wild men of the Left!

Gordon Brown could never have been a Conservative – it would have been utterly antipathetic to his upbringing, his roots and his core beliefs. There can be no doubt that unlike Blair Brown was a committed and almost doctrinaire socialist as a young man and that his Presbyterian upbringing in the Manse inculcated in him a strong social conscience. Also unlike Blair Brown was brilliant academically – a first-class honours graduate of Edinburgh University and a PhD as well.  Brown entered politics not in pursuit of power but in pursuit of principle. But his abilities were such that he rose rapidly in the Labour ranks and when the famous deal was done with Blair after the death of John Smith in 1994 he assured himself of the number two place in the Labour government elected three years later. And that is when the “corruption of power” started. The trappings of office; the tributes from all quarters to the success of his overseeing of the British economy; the adulation of friends and family – he undoubtedly began to believe the story.

Hubris had been Tony Blair’s downfall – it was hubris that led him unforgivably to cuddle up to George Bush and to follow the dysfunctional Bush administration’s immoral adventure in Iraq. Blair was elected three times because on balance the British public believed what he said. When it became clear that Blair had twisted the truth to breaking point in justifying the Iraq war his credibility began to disappear and the “Bliar” T-shirts began to appear. And that was when the morally rectitudinous Gordon Brown began to get really itchy for power beyond that which he already had.   In his own mind Blair was a charlatan – a snake-oil salesman with no ideological roots whereas honest Gordon was upright and principled – and would clearly therefore make a better Prime Minister than his now hated rival.  The stables of the Labour Government whilst not quite Aegean were foul enough and it needed Gordon to clean them thoroughly.

The problem with Brown’s push for power is that he had been a member of Tony Blair’s cabinet for ten years and his principles had never driven him to resign on any issue – even those which betrayed socialism and led to an unholy transatlantic alliance with Bush.  That Brown was ritually abused and insulted by the Blair/Mandelson/Campbell axis in cabinet is certain and that this upset him is understandable. But the fact that it was never a resigning matter undermines his claim to having a greater moral purpose and honesty that the slippery Blair.

The corruption of power in Blair was clear for all to see – ultimately it cost him his job and his reputation but like the good Catholic he now is Blair can ask for forgiveness and absolution and put all behind him. But there is no confessional in the Presbyterian “Church of Scotland” and Gordon Brown has to struggle personally with his conscience and live with his mistakes. He must be troubled beyond imagination by the fact that his praised-at-the-time light touch policy on the regulation of the financial markets was a major cause of Britain’s current economic malaise.  The banker fat cats are lambasted – but rich despite their falls from grace. The people who a socialist man-of-the-manse might have been expected to protect are now out-of-work and on the breadline. So Brown’s corruption was twofold. First because the power that he achieved was so addictive that he forgot the principles that got him there in the first place. Second because the power and the fame led him to believe that he was right for the top job – despite his obvious shortcomings as a man manager and as a communicator. Blair was a man without the genuine solid values of Brown – but he could employ Brown in one of the great offices of state partly to cover his vulnerable ideological flank. But as Premier Brown has now to do all the things that Blair was so good at – but without the talent to so. Peter Mandelson can try and shore up this missing element of the Brown character and style but in truth the game is up. Number 10 was a fatal step too far for Gordon Brown and we are all the victims of his hubris – as we were of Blair’s.

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