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Time running out for Gordon Brown.

Byline: Neil Berry

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown may soon be fighting for his political life. With his Labour Party having suffered humiliating by-election defeat last Thursday at the hands of the Scottish Nationalist Party in one of its former strongholds, the working-class constituency of Glasgow East, the chances that Brown could lead his party to victory in the next general election look slim.

Such is Brown's unpopularity that he declined to visit the constituency during the campaign. Much of his unpopularity stems from the sharp economic downturn that Britain is experiencing. But it scarcely helped his or Labour's cause that the Scottish Nationalists were able to parade photographs of him in the company of the former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Many Scots are bound to feel that Brown, himself Scottish, has sold them out by so conspicuously associating with a right-wing English politician widely regarded as the enemy of Scotland in general and its working class in particular.

An infirm octogenarian who nowadays cuts a ghostly figure, Mrs. Thatcher seems to be haunting Brown. In the run-up to the Glasgow East bye-election, it was much in the news that the proposal she be accorded a state funeral enjoys his support. It was not the first time that Brown had controversially signaled his good will toward the former Tory leader. Shortly after succeeding Tony Blair last summer as prime minister, he issued a highly publicized invitation to Mrs. Thatcher to visit 10 Downing Street. The gesture outraged many in the Labour Party who saw it as proof that Brown, in common with his predecessor, Blair, feels greater allegiance to what Mrs. Thatcher stood for - her commitment to neoliberal economics and a Washington-led, neoimperialist foreign British policy - than he does to the leftist traditions of his own party.

Yet the conventional wisdom is that for all the ill feeling generated by Mrs. Thatcher, the successive Tory governments over which she presided during the 1980s did nothing less than rescue Britain from looming economic collapse. The story goes that when she took over in 1979, Britain, thanks to years of misrule by spendthrift Labour governments, was at the mercy of strike-fixated trade unions that saddled their country with rampant inflation. Reputedly, by the time she left office in 1990, she had cured British people of their ruinous dependence on the state and transformed Britain into a US-style enterprise culture that set a premium on self-reliance.

It is the Thatcherite "success" story that Brown apparently wishes to invoke in the public mind by so conspicuously identifying himself with the former Tory leader. All too conscious of his plunging opinion poll ratings, Brown has seemed anxious to remind the British electorate that he, too, is a British leader in the Thatcher mold, a politician who will not flinch from taking unpopular decisions in his determination to do what is right for his country.

It may be that Britain does need strong leadership at the present time. But the Thatcherite prescription for Britain's ills which Brown as New Labour chancellor of the exchequer between 1997 and 2006 was happy to adopt (albeit behind a veil of "progressive" rhetoric) is rapidly losing its credibility. Britain is manifestly not better equipped to withstand the onset of global recession than her continental neighbors like France and Germany, countries which stopped well short of the wholehearted British embrace of the US gospel of deregulation and free markets. Indeed, after what may be said to be 30 years of Thatcherism, Britain is once again beginning to seem like the "sick man of Europe", a country stricken by acute social and economic crisis.

It has often been remarked that if Thatcherism made Britain a harsher society, it also infused it with fresh dynamism. The danger now, however, is that with mushrooming public and private debt, a grossly overvalued housing market and growing social inequality, the country is ending up both poorer and nastier. The nastiness has become impossible to ignore. Britain is an edgy, not to say menacing, place, with news bulletins dominated by what seems like an epidemic of stabbings among teenagers and the social fabric patently under mounting strain. One day last week, a policeman was beaten and bitten by a gang of youths after asking a girl to pick up a discarded piece of wrapping paper - and this was in the middle of Croydon, a south London suburb synonymous with middle class gentility.

The assumption that Mrs. Thatcher not only stemmed but actually reversed British decline may soon be felt to require drastic revision. It is possible that "Thatcherism" will be seen not as an antidote to British decline but as a continuation of it, a desperate remedy that afforded a short-term fix but failed to address Britain's underlying problems. How to sustain an industrially clapped-out Britain as a developed society was a question that preoccupied British politicians in the 1970s. It is no longer clear, especially in places like Glasgow East, that Britain has derived any long-term advantage from the Thatcherite decimation of manufacturing and the creation of a post-industrial service economy heavily reliant on cheap foreign labor.

If Britain has enjoyed an economic miracle in recent years, it is in no small part because the City of London became a tax haven for international wealth, absorbing a vast influx of global capital, "hot money" which fed the illusion of a national prosperity.

The mounting disillusionment with the government of Brown will almost certainly result before long in the coming to power of the first Tory government for more than a decade. But the Tory leader David Cameron seems certain to inherit an economic debacle, though one rooted in the free-market mania that has so much defined the approach of his own party. For the moment Cameron enjoys the luxury of being able to mock Brown's boast to have been a prudent steward of the British economy - especially now it has emerged that the British Treasury is contending with the worst budget deficit since World War II. Yet it is hard to see what options will be open to him as prime minister other than to bewail the shambles he has inherited.

As for Brown, he now seems less likely to be remembered for sound management of the economy than as a Labour politician who betrayed his party's socialist heritage - and who for his pains was rewarded with nothing in the end save public contempt. Long thwarted in his ambition to become prime minister by his rival for power, Blair, Brown could not have assumed the leadership at a worse moment.

By contrast, Blair timed his exit to perfection. "Goodbye and good luck", said the departing leader last summer, with more than a hint of Schadenfreude in the way he pronounced those last two words. For all their notorious mutual loathing, however, both men will be forever linked in the historical record as twin architects of New Labour, an overhyped brand of politics which turned out to be the latest installment in the implosion of post-imperial Britain.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 3, 2008
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