Brown premiership: Same attacks in new wrapping

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As he stood outside the door of Number 10 on the day he became Prime Minister, Gordon Brown declared his commitment to change: "Change in our NHS, change in our schools, change with affordable housing, change to build trust in government, change to extend and protect the British way of life." He declared he had "listened and...learnt from the British people" and pledged to lead "a new government with new priorities" and "to reach out beyond narrow party interest." In his new government he brought in new ministers and advisers, some of who were critics of the war in Iraq, others from the Liberal Democrats and others again from outside party politics altogether. He was welcomed by many leader writers and commentators and within a few days Labour moved ahead in the polls for the first time since Cameron was elected Tory leader. Brown's response to the attempted bombings in London and Glasgow underscored the change. Where Blair had thrust himself into the limelight, Brown allowed the new Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, to take the lead. Where Blair echoed Bush's rhetoric about the ‘war on terror', Brown banned the use of the term and instead talked about ‘winning hearts and minds' in our ‘communities'. He was rewarded by the greater willingness of the official Muslim organisations to denounce the latest attacks and call for cooperation with the police.

Is this all just window dressing? In one sense, yes, since there will be no change of substance: the working class will still be exploited; foreign policy will still amount to war and imperialist manoeuvres; the government will still defend the interests of the ruling class. In another sense, no: the ruling class does need to make changes to maintain its control over society and to keep exploiting the working class. This is one of the features of bourgeois politics. At every election we are promised a new start, a fresh beginning, a change from the worn out policies and people of yesterday. This was true of Labour in 1945, the Tories in 1979 and New Labour in 1997. Parties transform themselves as Labour did under Blair and as the Tories are trying to do under Cameron. The idea of real change and real alternatives, where the masses make the choice, is fundamental to the working of a political system that actually defends the interests of a minority. At the same time real change does happen, but it is change that secures the position of the ruling class. Thus in 1945 Labour was swept to power to mark the change from war to peace and pledged to make good on all the promises of a better tomorrow that had been used to get the working class to accept the sacrifices of war. The ruling class still remembered what happened after the First World War in Russia and Germany. In 1979 the Tories under Thatcher replaced Labour in order to accelerate the economic attacks that were necessary to keep British capitalism going, leaving Labour free to mop up the anger amongst working people that resulted. In 1997 this arrangement was no longer necessary as the collapse of the eastern bloc had led to a retreat in the class struggle, so New Labour could come to power on the back of the hatred of the Tories while continuing the same policies. They were also better placed to defend Britain's imperialist interests in the post cold-war period that required a path to be found between Europe and the US.

Renewal in power

So why the need for change now? Blair had said he would stay until the end of the third term, now he has been pushed from office three years early. In the management of the economy and in containing the working class he has done what was asked of him, but there were two reasons why he had to go. Firstly, in foreign policy he moved too close to the US, tied Britain up in two wars that seem to have no end and reduced Britain's power and position in the world further than ever. "The full extent of the weakening of British imperialism was exposed by the conflict in the Lebanon...the fundamental significance...was that it confronted it with the reality of its status as an imperialist power and marked another stage in the historic decline of British imperialism" (‘Resolution on the British situation ', WR 302).

The second reason was that he undermined the internal life of the British ruling class by replacing its traditional structures and ways of working with his own faction. This is a feature of the current period of capitalism where the absence of any sense of perspective for the ruling class has led to a loss of discipline that in some countries has threatened its capacity to rule. This is not the case in Britain, but the very fact that it has been affected by this tendency is a serious danger that the British ruling class knows it has to combat.

Initially pressure was put on Blair to mend his ways, but when it became clear that this was not going to happen the ‘loans for peerages' scandal was stepped up with the arrest of some of his close allies and the interviewing of Blair himself by the police. After the attempted coup by Brown's supporters last September, Blair was forced to announce he would leave within the year. The ruling class accepted this delay partly because he had served them well in many ways, but more because it was important to engineer an ‘orderly handover' to avoid any sense of crisis or panic. Three weeks before he left office Blair was interviewed by the police for a third time just to make sure he had got the message.

But, if this is the case, why were the Tories not put into power? There are two reasons. In the first place, for all the changes that Cameron has made, which have been reflected in the Tories' rise in the polls, they are not ready for office yet, as the recent gaffes over policy suggest (e.g. divisions over grammar schools). The stage-managed defection of Tory MP Quentin Davies on the eve of Brown's assumption of power harshly underlined this. In the second place, New Labour has served the ruling class well, so there is no real need to bring the Tories in now. It is far better for the ruling class to keep its powder dry now in case the situation is quite different in a couple of years

Changes to strengthen the ruling class

In his first actions Brown signalled that he would address the concerns of the ruling class, that here at least there would be change. He stated that there will be no sofa politics under his leadership, overturned Blair's ruling that allowed Labour appointed officials to give orders to civil servants, held three cabinet meetings in his first week and declared his intention to return to the tradition of making major announcements to parliament rather than the press. In his first speech Brown informed the House of Commons that he would end or modify the executive's power to make decisions without recourse to parliament and suggested that this might include the power to declare war.

The shift in foreign policy was announced by appointing David Milliband as Foreign Secretary, by bringing in Shirley Williams as an advisor and Sir Mark Mallach Brown, a former deputy secretary-general of the UN, as minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, and offering a place to Paddy Ashdown who is known to be pro-European. Milliband criticised Blair's position over the war in the Lebanon last year, Williams opposed the war in Iraq and Mallach Brown has been an open critic of Bush and Blair. This last appointment has already been criticised by John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN as "inauspicious" while being hailed as "a statement of independence" by a former head of the United Nations Association (Guardian 29/6/07). Brown himself has been careful to avoid being contaminated by Blair's military adventures, only beginning to travel abroad during Blair's final days and even then keeping the focus on such ‘good news' stories as his efforts to relieve poverty in Africa.

The limits of change

However, while the bourgeoisie may be able to nuance its foreign policy and rein back some of the manifestations of the disorder within their own class, they cannot overcome the fundamental problems that confront them. What Blair was punished for cannot be solved by a simple act of will.

Britain's imperialist policy is a consequence of its history and its current position. Since 1989 this has meant steering a path between the US and Europe. However, it has been unable to play one off against the other so Blair gambled on moving closer to US and lost. Even though Blair has gone it is not possible to put the clock back. Britain's weakened power has been exposed and there is no basis yet for overcoming the divisions this produced in the bourgeoisie. Certainly the ruling class will try to respond to this situation and there may be some shifts in policy ahead of us but there is no way back to Britain's former standing.

Similarly, the pressures that push the various clans in the ruling class to pursue their factional interests may be ameliorated but they cannot be eradicated. They arise from the very foundation of capitalist society in its phase of decomposition, from the absence of any sense of a future beyond mere survival and looking after number one. One example of this was the way that the attempt to bring Blair back into line used methods that themselves fuelled the loss of discipline: "Thus, during the Butler inquiry the security service set up a website and published confidential documents that contradicted the government's claims about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction" (‘Resolution on the British situation', op cit).

Even in the areas where Blair was praised there are serious difficulties. The economy, the basis of Brown's own claim to success, has only grown at the cost of the working class. The latest report from the IMF in March this year showed that personal spending remains the main factor in the growth of the economy and that, as a consequence personal debt has continued to rise, and that the current account is projected to remain in deficit over the next few years. The housing market, which has financed much of the increased personal spending, has begun to accelerate again, increasing the possibility of a sharp readjustment that could have a severe impact on growth.

Finally, for all of its ability to control the class struggle, the necessity to continue to make the working class pay for the economy through debt, low pay and long hours only increases the possibility of anger turning to resistance and of defence turning to attack. This at last would be a change that benefits the working class.

North 4/7/7.