The British Prime Minister’s days certainly seemed numbered. Conceded the premiership by a recalcitrant Tony Blair, Gordon Brown presided over a Labour Party that was increasingly rife with internal conflict and external distrust. A by-election – Labour’s worst showing in decades – nearly cost the party its governing majority. London elected bumbling Boris Johnson its first conservative mayor. The conflict between Russia and Georgia left Brown flummoxed and provided a convenient launching pad for the leadership ambitions of Foreign Secretary David Milliband. It was all enough for most pundits to preemptively declare young Tory leader David Cameron the UK’s next PM. But with the onset of the global financial crisis last month, Gordon Brown’s star is rising once again – both in Britain and the wider world.
Before the tardily-honored deal that made him premier, Brown was principally known for his financial acumen. Lauded for laying the groundwork for the UK’s booming economy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his policies helped the New Labour movement win parliamentary majorities three general elections in a row. At the same time, Brown – a Scot with ties to the perennially powerful trades unions – was seen as a touchstone for more assertively socialist “Old Labour” values. Old Labourites hoped that Brown’s ascension to No. 10 would help stem the tide of creeping privatization of health care and education – or even help corral the British commitment to Iraq.
But Brown’s ministry turned out much more like a lame duck extension of the Blair government he had just inherited. Cameron’s Question Time quips easily buried Brown, who can sound as mealy-mouthed as U.S. Rep. Barney Frank ’77. The Tories’ fresh faced new hope was not content with momentarily mauling the sitting government, however – on Brown’s watch, he has mounted his party’s greatest ideological revival since Benjamin Disraeli married conservatism to nationalism: the Tories seized the mantle of community from Labour. At his party’s conference (read: convention) several weeks ago, Cameron asserted that Labour believed only in the individual and the state – whereas the Tories would support the gray areas in between – families, neighborhood groups, and faith-based communities.
Charges of absolutism and calls for solidarity certainly might have resonated in the face of financial crisis – but it didn’t. Seizing the initiative, Brown took command of the world he knew best – macroeconomic policy – and came through as a dyed-in-the-wool member of Old Labour: his response was the partial nationalization of undercapitalized banks. For all its implied protectionism, Brown’s leadership on the issue was truly international: he successfully persuaded other countries to do the same. As reassuring as it is to know that more reasonable governments will step into the US’ traditional leadership role in the absence of a capable American executive, Brown’s newfound ascendancy raises an issue that is inviting increasingly more speculation: is the old (statism, Keynesianism) truly new again – the world over? The answer might mean that more curious political specimens are raised from the dead than Gordon Brown’s career.