Blair to Brown: Something New Under the Sun?

Just over three weeks into the new regime of Gordon Brown, there is a new bounce and a sense of renewed optimism about these islands.

Although his legislative program will not be formally announced until a Queen’s Speech on November 6, Gordon Brown has already broken with tradition by setting out his legislative plans in a Commons statement on July 11, paving the way for regional public consultations before the program is finalized. The new approach is also intended to show that a decisive break has been made with the Blair era.

While much of the focus of this Commons statement was on education, health, and housing plans (among a total of 23 new bills), in his first ever Commons statement as prime minister on July 3, Gordon Brown unveiled an even more wide-ranging set of proposals for “a new British constitutional settlement that entrusts more power to parliament and the British people.” Currently Britain has a largely unwritten constitution, and a consultative Green Paper, The Governance of Britain, published alongside Brown’s statement, includes proposals for a Bill of Rights and Duties, which would set out the rights and responsibilities of citizens and government.

Some of the ideas are still at the formative stage, while others to reduce centuries-old powers of the executive and the prime minister are more concrete. The latter include surrendering or limiting the executive’s powers over the right to declare war, ratify international treaties, grant pardons and make key public appointments. According to Brown’s proposal, the Commons would formally approve “significant, non-routine deployments of the armed forces.” But consultation would be needed to ensure that a means could be found to do this “without prejudicing the government’s ability to take swift action to protect our national security, or undermining operational security or effectiveness.” The proposal to limit executive war powers is less of a surprise to the British people than America might think. In the wake of the Iraq debacle, there is almost universal acceptance in Britain of the principle that parliament should henceforth have the final say in a decision to go to war. Of course, the House of Commons held such a vote on Iraq in 2003, but all the political parties are now committed to making this a standard principle that is embodied in law.

How all this will turn out is not clear. The biggest constitutional changes are now going to be put out for public and parliamentary consultation, with new Minister for Justice Jack Straw leading the effort. But supporters and critics alike have acknowledged that if most of these plans are realized it would amount to a significant redrawing of the relationship between citizen and state. As Gordon Brown made clear in his speech to MPs: “We will only meet the new challenges of security, of economic change, of communities under pressure – and forge a stronger shared national purpose – by building a new relationship between citizens and government that ensures the government is a better servant of the people.”

Gordon Brown: Who is he?

Admirers describe him as intellectually awesome, physically impressive, morally impeccable, and seriously committed. Critics call him dour, and a “control freak” possessed of “Stalinist ruthlessness.” Certainly Brown is on record as eschewing the kind of celebrity culture that surrounded Tony Blair, especially in the early days of “Cool Britannica.” (One of his few celebrity acquaintances, a close friend of his wife, is author J. K. Rowling.) But as the longest-serving chancellor in modern British history he is undeniably a political heavyweight, and as the PM of Britain Inc. he can hardly avoid celebrity status himself (irrespective of the number of wizards and witches that trail in his wake). However, even after more than a decade of scrutiny, his nature remains enigmatic and his depths not fully fathomed: the “great puzzle” according to The New York Times. Sir John Major recently said that he did not really know Gordon Brown, adding: “I’m not one of the six people who do.”

Holding on to the Crown

When the Labor leader John Smith died unexpectedly in May 1994, many believed Brown was the most likely to succeed him, but Blair emerged from the sidelines. Some commentators have described Gordon Brown as a Shakespearean character; a brooding Hamlet, who has dithered in his rivalry with Blair. But having finally gained the Crown, Brown will be anxious not to lose it so soon.

The next UK general election must be held on or before 3 June 2010. It is possible that it may be held in June 2009 to coincide with elections to the European Parliament or even as early as Spring 2008, if a confident Gordon Brown were to take a sustained lead in the opinion polls. There are four key areas in which the UK election battleground will be fought:

The economy: Britain’s golden decade of growth with low inflation is nearing an end; interest rates are at a six-year high of 5.5% and are expected to reach 6% before the end of the year (which in turn has seen the sterling vault to a 26-year high against the dollar). The Comprehensive Spending Review is due to be published in October outlining government spending over the next 3-5 years. It is predicted to show a significant tightening of public spending, with real cuts in several departments, and slowed growth in others.

Health: The Labour Government has presided over huge increases in health spending, which will reach £92bn ($180bn) this year. Yet the government is facing protests by junior doctors, furious at changes to their training, and voters unhappy at hospital closures.

The English/Scottish divide (The ‘West Lothian Question’): Since devolution, the Scottish Parliament has exclusive power to legislate on most domestic issues. This means that Scottish MPs in Westminster have a say over exclusively English laws, while English MPs have no say over these issues in Scotland. The Scottish National Party formed a minority government in Scotland in May and has promised a referendum on independence within the 4-year term of office, but they need allies to push through the necessary law to hold it.

The fourth key issue, and the focus of this article, is foreign policy, including the future UK role in Iraq and Britain’s relationship with the United States.

UK foreign policy and defense – the most urgent challenges facing Brown

Prior to becoming prime minister, Gordon Brown was relatively silent on the subject of foreign policy. Despite speeches on Britishness, national security, climate change, and terrorism, he left few clues as to his likely strategies for the wider global security agenda–with the exception of a long-standing commitment to tackling poverty in Africa. But even here Brown was more comfortable on aid, debt relief, and trade (soft security) rather than the role of Britain’s armed forces in conflicts such as Darfur. It was expected that Brown would want to act in such cases but would be more cautious about the costs and complexities of intervention than his predecessor.

One of Brown’s first masterstrokes as prime minister was to signal a change in the style of government. First, instead of leading a narrow government as many had expected, he launched a “government of all the talents,” finding room for non-politicians (e.g. former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, Sir Digby Jones, became minister for trade; former Metropolitan Police chief Lord Stevens became his international security adviser; and former Navy chief Sir Alan West joined the Home Office as a security minister) and even offering cabinet places to members of other parties (although the offer to Lord Ashdown was declined).

Second, unlike his predecessor, Gordon Brown will not try to run foreign policy out of No.10, and has appointed a strong, independent-minded ministerial team to reflect the change agenda. The appointment of David Miliband, a Labor heavyweight and future prime ministerial contender, as foreign secretary will ensure his department is not rolled over by Downing Street. Miliband’s arrival also offers a break with the tainted past, since he was privately critical of the Iraq invasion and Israel’s use of air strikes in Lebanon. Similarly, the appointment of Mark Malloch Brown as a junior foreign minister with responsibility for Africa, Asia, and the UN sends a signal to Washington of a new intent on the part of the British government not to tow the White House line so uncritically. While he was head of the UN Development Program and Kofi Annan’s right-hand man, Malloch Brown crossed swords frequently with Washington and is another Iraq war critic.

Third, not only has every cabinet post except Des Browne at defense changed hands, with seven ministers in cabinet for the first time and the mean age falling from 54 to 49, but Gordon Brown has also strongly indicated that he favors a return to cabinet government. Traditionally, the UK has had a cabinet government, but with both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the prime minister became a dominant figure, often bypassing the cabinet. Again, this marks an attempt by Brown to show that he is moving away from Blair’s much-criticized style of “sofa government.”

Fourth, the new prime minister has made it clear that career civil servants from the Foreign Office (rather than political appointees) will become his principal advisers on international relations. Simon McDonald, a former UK ambassador to Israel who headed Iraq policy at the Foreign Office, has replaced Sir Nigel Sheinwald as chief foreign policy adviser (Sheinwald is heading for Washington as the British Ambassador). Jon Cunliffe, the second permanent secretary at the Treasury has taken over from Kim Darroch as the Prime Minister’s main adviser on European policy. Brown also plans to ban special advisers from giving orders to civil servants, as Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell did for Tony Blair.

Finally, the role of attorney general (the crown’s chief law officer) is about to change. The government will publish a consultation paper on possible changes within the month, in response to the increasing clamor over the job’s potential conflicts of interest. Lady Scotland (a rare combination of a black woman barrister QC, only 51 years old, and a member of the House of Lords) is the new incumbent. Her predecessor, Lord Goldsmith, was dogged by rows over his involvement in decisions on charges over the honors investigation, his role in ending the BAE fraud inquiry and his legal advice on the Iraq war.

The PM and his foreign and defense team face a daunting in-tray of challenges:

Iraq: Public opinion, which was split down the middle on the merits of the 2003 invasion, now believes that Blair presided over a blunder. Brown knows that there are no quick fixes. He will not announce an immediate withdrawal of British troops (having been part of the government that sent them in), but he knows he must act fast to draw a line under the Blair era. British military commanders are reported to have drawn up plans to withdraw the vast majority of British troops from Iraq within 12 months to concentrate on the war in Afghanistan. They believe British troops are achieving little in southern Iraq and that their presence is escalating the violence. Troop numbers have already been reduced from 7,000 to 5,500 in recent weeks (as tabled in February). Some reports suggest that the remaining British forces in Iraq (under the most optimistic scenarios, down to 1,500 by the end of the year) may be withdrawn to the airport base in Basra in August, handing over control of the last province they control to Iraqi forces.

It has also been suggested that Brown will try to take the sting out of the Iraq issue by quickly announcing an inquiry, but again, this is unlikely while British forces are still in a combat role. The report of the cross-party independent Commission into the future of the U.K,’s role in Iraq (a U.K.-equivalent of the U.S. Iraq Study Group), chaired by Lord Ashdown, Baroness Jay, and Lord King may help to build a new consensus. Published this week, the report concludes, however, that there are “only painful” options left, of a war policy it calls damaged by “ridiculously over-ambitious” goals. Among the report’s recommendations are that the UK, along with the United States and EU, should initiate a “diplomatic offensive” to stabilise Iraq’s borders, and that troop withdrawal should not be given a timetable, but “will happen as a consequence of the completion of training activity.” Lord Ashdown said Britain and the United States should scale back their political ambitions to one clear aim: maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq.

Afghanistan: In many respects, the outcome in Afghanistan is even more crucial than in Iraq. Failure would mean a hugely increased risk of instability in Pakistan and is the litmus test for the purpose and prospects of NATO in its post-Cold War incarnation. It is widely acknowledged that NATO’s Afghanistan mission is in trouble, and the aggressive counter-insurgency operations in the south of the country, and especially the use of air-power, is leading to an increase in civilian casualties–and the beginnings of a slide in support for the international presence. And with 1/25th the amount of soldiers and 1/50th the amount of aid per head of population being put into Afghanistan, as compared to Bosnia and Kosovo, Lord Ashdown the former high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, has urged a change of approach if failure is to be averted.

Iran : Iraq will undoubtedly color Brown’s policy towards Iran. While Blair has refused to rule out military action, it is almost inconceivable that a Brown government would support such action. Indeed, the appointments of Milliband and Malloch Brown in the Foreign Office gives a clear signal to Washington that the new British government is much less likely to back military action against Iran (even though Milliband has also refused to take the military option off the table). Expect the new Foreign Office to pursue a diplomatic path as a way of preventing Iran building a nuclear bomb, perhaps drawing on Brown’s economic experience to make the case for more carrot and less stick.

Terrorism: Immediately after 9/11 Brown talked about the need to address the underlying causes of conflict and extremism. But he said very little about these issues in his pre-prime minister national security speeches, and he appeared to take an identical line to Blair on the balance between human rights and anti-terrorism legislation. In recent weeks, however, a stronger picture has emerged. First, in contrast to Tony Blair, the new British leader has offered no emotive sound bites, no promises of tough new laws and no talk of a “war on terror” since the failed terror attacks in London and Glasgow at the end of June. His few public statements have been measured and brief, with many Britons welcoming this change to a lower-key approach. Second, as part of the measures announced on July 3, a new national security council is to be set up to “coordinate military, policing, intelligence and diplomatic action and [attempt] also to win hearts and minds in this country and round the world.” Its aim will be to bring together the government’s overseas, defense, security, and community relations strategies to counter terrorism.

Climate change:This issue will continue to be a priority. In April 2006, the chancellor used a speech to the U.N. to stress the need of “great statesmanship” in tackling climate change, claiming that protecting the environment can boost rather than hinder economic growth. Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern report, has close links to his Treasury officials; the report has had significant impact within the Brown camp.

The ‘special relationship’ with the United States: Brown is an admirer of many aspects of U.S. society and a regular visitor. There is nothing in his history to suggest a radical shift in the terms of the Anglo-American relationship. In September last year, for example, he gave strong backing to the United States in an article in popular tabloid The Sun, suggesting those hoping for a significant tilt away from Washington will be disappointed. But he will want to distance himself from aspects of Bush’s foreign policy—Guantánamo, the practice of extraordinary rendition and U.S. hostility towards the UN. Similarly, the new foreign secretary Miliband is a frequent visitor to America and keeps close tabs on the policy debates there, but is also enthusiastically and instinctively pro-European.

The Times has reported that Washington is uneasy over some of Brown’s anti-war ministers, citing raised eyebrows in particular over the appointment of Lord Malloch-Brown who had previously attacked President Bush’s “megaphone diplomacy” and America’s attitude to multilateralism. And while it is warming to learn that John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador at the UN, with whom Malloch-Brown clashed repeatedly, has already described the appointment as an “inauspicious” beginning to the new government, it would be a mistake to read too much into these early exchanges.

A similar caveat applies regarding the subtle change of emphasis in the Special Relationship signaled by the new International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander–one of Gordon Brown’s closest allies. In a speech in Washington on July 12, he said nations had to build new alliances and reach out to the world, and that a country’s strength should not be measured by its military might. Alexander also called for “core values” of “opportunity, responsibility and justice” to tackle global poverty. “In the 20th century a country’s might was too often measured in what they could destroy. In the 21st century strength should be measured by what we can build together,” he said, adding: “Multilateralist, not unilateralist means a rules-based international system. Just as we need the rule of law at home to have civilization so we need rules abroad to ensure global civilization.”

In his maiden speech as foreign secretary on July 19, David Milliband unsurprisingly insisted that the United States is Britain’s most important ally, even though the focus was also on underlining the importance of multilateral action in a world where problems have to be tackled globally and power is becoming more dispersed.

Whether or not these speeches should be seen as a coded criticism of the current U.S. president is an open question. But if Britain is distancing itself from President Bush, the relationship is likely to become closer again if a Democrat (or a more moderate Republican) becomes president in 2008. Gordon Brown did have a carefully arranged “drop-by” meeting with President Bush and his national security adviser Stephen Hadley earlier this year, and is expected to have more formal talks with the President before the end of the summer. But expect the new prime minister to take his own toothpaste.

Non-proliferation : While Brown backed spending on a replacement for the Trident nuclear deterrent (“I can’t see a situation where a unilateral gesture by Britain would make any difference to what other countries do”), he has also said that global talks could lead to a reduction in nuclear armaments (“if we act multilaterally… then I think we can get results in the next couple of years”). He has already indicated that he is determined to make this issue a strong foreign policy priority, and in her final speech as froreign secretary in Washington on June 25, Margaret Beckett spelled out details of how Britain wants to become a “disarmament laboratory” and unveiled concrete steps to champion multilateral nuclear reductions.

Domestically, Gordon Brown will be hoping that the parliamentary vote in March 2007 that committed Britain to a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines will have put the issue to bed. But the final ‘main gate’ decision on signing the expensive construction contracts could be revisited by parliament in 2012-2014 and the renewal program could be cancelled “should there be a fundamental change for the better in the strategic environment.” Thus, the March 2007 vote is not the end of the matter. A future British parliament will face the choice of whether to build and deploy the submarines. And with projections for the MoD’s next 10-year plan (2011-21) revealing a serious multi-billion pound gap between available funding and anticipated program costs (large conventional naval, air and land acquisitions are due to coincide with major investment in Trident replacement), something has to give.

Conclusions

Brown’s foreign policy will be similar to Blair’s. But there will be something new under the sun, if only new shades and tones. Brown’s thinking on these issues is still evolving, and will do so quickly in office. He will be measured by what he does in power, how strong he is in the face of unexpected events and how deft he is in navigating the complex maneuvering of other leaders and the British media. But as a rough guide, a Brown foreign policy is likely to be a little less pro-Bush, more cautious about the deployment of British troops overseas, more explicitly multilateralist and more engaged with the global justice agenda than that of Tony Blair.

Dr. Ian Davis is co-director of the British American Security Information Council, which has offices in London and Washington. Formerly Program Manager at Saferworld, he has published widely on British defense and foreign policy, European security, the arms trade, and nuclear and conventional arms control.