Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Brown a Red?

By a curious coincidence, in the week that the UK state took over a huge swathe of our economy, by taking major stakes in the country’s banks, it also backed down on its attempt to extend the period of time prisoners could be held without charge.

With one hand it gives, the other it takes away, it seems. At least that is what it might seem from those that are highly sensitive to the size of the state. And certainly the Gordon Brown of the 1970s would have loved the idea of taking control of the commanding heights of the UK economy. And the Labour Party has rarely been a friend of liberty, except for a short (and significant) burst of liberalism in the late 1960s under Roy Jenkins.

However, Brown today is not the Red of yesteryear. He is taking control of banks to save the banking system as a whole, because without it the country's economy would quickly grind to a halt. Even the FT, hardly a fan of state-controlled banking, accepts this, as a thoughtful leader today reflects.

But Brown, and the Labour Party, are not instinctively liberal – they do not see the necessary linkage between state control and transparency. Brown in particular does not seem keen to explain his actions, nor even to ask the population to trust him. His is a very anonymous form of leadership. But the state now takes a very large stake in the condition of the economy, and this is only likely to grow in the years to come, as recession squeezes the private sector.

In this climate, the government needs to be much clearer about its actions and thinking. This is in the interest of good decision-making; the world of finance desperately needs some cleansing light to pour into it. Moreover, if such clarity does not emerge, it seems likely that Brown's government will quickly be replaced by someone better able to connect with the public.

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