Wednesday, 15 January 2014

A monument to Gordon Brown now failed and empty

It moved me more than I expected to hear that the Strathmore Hotel was closing.

Luton, where I now live, isn’t a town that’s particularly strong on prestige. The Strathmore, right in the centre of town, was probably about the closest we got to it.

Not that it was particularly good, or anything: it was housed in a multi-storey concrete slab and the one time I stayed there, my room could only be regarded as luxurious in contrast to a broom cupboard. It was also long on the threadbare, and a bit short on the clean.

The Strathmore.
No great shakes but about as close to prestige as Luton gets
But it was the place that I went to hear a star of the Labour Party speak, way back in 1994. 

John Smith, leader of the Party, had suddenly died a few months earlier. His death opened the way to a hard fought leadership contest. On the one hand stood the heavyweight Gordon Brown, who’d been close to John Smith. Indeed, as the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking on financial matters for the Opposition, he was second only to the leader in stature and his most obvious heir.

On the other hand stood a newcomer, brilliant and charismatic, but without Brown
s standing. Tony Blair, Shadow Home Secretary, had come up with a memorable slogan: ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.’ It promoted the belief that people weren’t necessarily born criminals, but often became criminals in response to the misery of their surroundings.

But Blair was a bit of an unknown quantity. What did he really represent? Was he just a bit of a crowd-pleaser? On the other hand, after 18 years in opposition, was that just what Labour needed?

Brown came to speak at the Strathmore Hotel in Luton during his leadership campaign. As a rank and file member of the Labour Party, I went to hear him. I was a little sceptical, seeing him as a man of the Party apparatus, a little soulless, over-ambitious, too cold and calculating for my liking.

At the meeting, though, he astounded me. He spoke with eloquence and feeling about the under-privileged, and he made a commitment that if Labour were elected under his leadership, he would make it his primary task to reduce or even eliminate child poverty in this country.

I left the meeting wholly won over. He had my vote. Blair was just a photogenic face and a soundbite. Brown was the real thing.

What happened a few weeks later? The mythology has been immortalised in Stephen Frears’ beautifully crafted TV film The Deal, starring the versatile Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. According to this version of events, broadly accepted as true, Brown and Blair made an agreement at the Granita restaurant in Islington, North London: Brown would stand down from the leadership campaign to give Blair a clear run. In return, Blair would make him Chancellor of the Exchequer if Labour won office at the forthcoming general election.

Blair may also have promised to resign from the top job some point in the future to let Brown have a go.

In May 1997, Blair formed his first government. Brown was Chancellor. But almost from the start, Brown was positioning himself to force Blair out so he could take over. The bad blood between number 10 Downing Street, residence of the Prime Minister, and number 11, residence of the Chancellor, became legendary.

It was one of the defining characteristics of the governments Blair led. And eventually, in 2007, after a little over ten years, Blair did stand down. Brown had a honeymoon bounce in the polls and could have gone to the country in the autumn, when he might have won. But he bottled out and went through to May 2010, when he was soundly beaten.

That deal in Islington set a time bomb ticking which eventually wrecked the Labour government and sank Brown. The story has many of the elements of Greek tragedy: a catastrophe set in train by its very victims, and which once started could not be halted – indeed was driven forward by their strivings.

And yet Brown, as Chancellor and Prime Minister, was a leading figure in administrations that took a million children out of poverty. He didn’t achieve his ambition of lifting them all, but he did far more than anyone else had for decades. His successors have been throwing kids right back into heart-wrenching misery: 300,000 in the first two years alone.

Blair, on the other hand, proved himself as tough on crime as any Tory Prime Minister, as indifferent to its causes.

What Brown did for poor children is monument enough to his achievement, and should compensate for much of the other bitterness. Each time I saw the Strathmore, I thought of it, and remembered the day I witnessed him pledging himself to that endeavour.

Now, though, the Strathmore itself has failed. The place where I listened to Brown and was won over stands empty and forlorn. Grandeur has evaporated.

Leaving only a sense of pathos at past hopes partly fulfilled.

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