The longer the Prime Minister remains silent about the mistakes of the past, the less convincing he is as a leader for the present, let alone the future
Mr Brown is not going to apologise. He has made that perfectly clear by his silence, if nothing else. Alas, he is wrong. There was a moment last October when we glimpsed a different Gordon Brown as, seemingly energised by the financial calamity, he showed a boldness of action that suggested he might not be a prisoner of his past. But since then he has been the dour and defensive Prime Minister that we have grown accustomed to. There are three reasons why he should say mea culpa.
First, we need to try to understand the causes of the financial crash. We have proximate explanations but it will take a long time for us to arrive at any deeper conclusions. If the Prime Minister admitted to his own responsibility in the financial meltdown, that would set the tone for British society to enter into a more meaningful debate about the debacle. If the Prime Minister shows contrition, it encourages everyone else to do likewise. That is what leadership is about. And after a decade of gross excess, contrition is surely an attitude that should be encouraged.
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The “new” in New Labour was skin deep: it marked the party’s capitulation to Thatcher
The 30th anniversary of Lady Thatcher’s election in 1979 – and the beginning of the era of Thatcherism – now looks very different from how it would have been viewed just a year ago. Indeed, one is reminded that Gordon Brown regarded an invitation to the Iron Lady for tea at No 10 as a means by which to lend authority and credibility to his premiership in its earliest days. Would he do so now? Perhaps. But that is mainly because the present Prime Minister is unable to shed his own Thatcherite clothes even though reality is dragging him kicking and screaming remorselessly in that direction. The 30th anniversary of the Thatcherite revolution is taking place at a time when the whole edifice of its assumptions, panaceas and policy prescriptions is crumbling in spectacular fashion. If Thatcherism has defined the zeitgeist of British politics for three decades, suddenly it now seems out of time. That is what historical turning points are about.
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The business and political elite are flying blind. This is the mother of all economic crises. It has barely started and remains completely out of control
We are living through a crisis which, from the collapse of Northern Rock and the first intimations of the credit crunch, nobody has been able to understand, let alone grasp its potential ramifications. Each attempt to deal with the crisis has rapidly been consumed by an irresistible and ever-worsening reality. So it was with Northern Rock. So it was with the attempt to recapitalise the banks. And so it will be with the latest gamut of measures. The British government – like every other government – is perpetually on the back foot, constantly running to catch up. There are two reasons. First, the underlying scale of the crisis is so great and so unfamiliar – and, furthermore, often concealed within the balance sheets of the banks and other financial institutions. Second, the crisis has undermined all the ideological assumptions that have underpinned government policy and political discourse over the past 30 years. As a result, the political and business elite are flying blind. This is the mother of all postwar crises, which has barely started and remains out of control. Its end – the timing and the complexion – is unknown.
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China will emerge over the next half-century as the world’s leading power. But how will Chinese hegemony be expressed, and how will the west deal with its displacement and sense of loss?
Over the past two centuries, there have been two globally dominant powers: Britain between 1850 and 1914, and the United States from 1945 to the present. But even in the case of the United States, whose influence is far greater than that of any other nation in history, such overweening power has never been without constraint. The concept of hegemony elaborated by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci entails the complex interaction of coercion and consent, force and leadership, and, though it was originally advanced to explain the nature of power within societies, it is also relevant to international relations. Far from hegemony being set in concrete, it is constantly contested and redefined, the balance of power never static, always in motion.
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