Tony Blair: The Countdown Begins

The date has been set, or at least the timeframe. Tony Blair will step down as Prime Minister of Britain within a year. This of course opens the door for Blair’s longtime rival and longtime successor Gordon Brown, with whom Blair was rumored to have engaged in a shouting match just prior to his surprise announcement.

Blair’s allies are scrambling to find a challenger for the “good of the party”. Those who read my last posting can probably see where I’m going with this. That challenger is Home Secretary John Reid, and his expert handling of last month’s “crisis” is the justification.

But who is Gordon Brown, anyway?

Surely, while Dr. Reid has been neatly groomed as the perfect challenger many questions remain, especially for those of us on the other side of the Atlantic. Who is Gordon Brown, why is the Blairite faction so determined to present a challenger to him, and what would a Prime Minister Brown mean in international affairs?

Gordon Brown has been Tony Blair’s strongest rival in the Labour Party for a decade now, and has been the Chancellor of the Exchequer from the day Blair took office. From that time, Brown has been considered the heir apparent, and from that time, Blair’s supporters have sniped at him and sought an alternative.

But why is that? A cursory glance at their respective positions reveal no glaring differences in policy. The biggest differences appear to be personal. Brown’s public condemnation of Oxford admissions policy made him a lot of enemies, particularly those close to the Oxford-educated Blair, and Blair’s support for the Euro may well have rubbed the Chancellor the wrong way, but their similarities as public advocates of “Third Way”-style New Labour would seem to make them allies, albeit reluctant ones.

What would Gordon Brown’s foreign policy be?

The $64,000 question, especially for most readers of this site, is what (if any) foreign policy changes would we see under a Brown Premiership. The answer, unfortunately, is far from clear.

For a politician who has spent decades at the forefront of policy decisions, Brown has been surprisingly tight-lipped about exactly where he stands on many issues, particularly those involving foreign affairs.

Though publicly he’s echoed Blair and Reid in their call for 90 day detentions, and touted his generous funding of the war on terror, there has been some speculation that he is increasingly annoyed at the havoc the high cost of wars is playing on his budget, and some have insinuated that this was a none-too-subtle attempt to convince those responsible for appointing a new Labour Party leader that his Premiership would not be a radical change.

One interesting rhetorical difference between Brown and Reid can be found in their domestic anti-terror policy, however. While last month Reid caused a minor stir in his insistence that freedoms would have to be curbed in the name of defeating terror. Brown, in an interview with the BBC last May, insisted that “you can have security without interfering in a deleterious way with people’s civil liberties”. What that means in actual policy differences is anyone’s guess, though it’s a good bet that Brown will be less eager to ditch Britain’s international human rights obligations.

This is much more speculative, but in the question of Gordon Brown’s foreign policy, we must not forget to mention former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

In early April, Seymour Hersh’s article broke on the Pentagon’s plans to attack Iran, potentially including the use of tactical nuclear weapons in such an attack. A couple of days later, Straw responded publicly, rejecting Hersh’s claims, citing the lack of actual evidence against Iran, and suggesting that a preemptive nuclear attack against Iran based on what amounted to unsubstantiated suspicion would be “nuts”. Straw reiterated this several times, and less than a month later he was fired.

Why this happened is still the subject of plenty of intense speculation. Well-connected neocon economist Irwin Stelzer even claimed that the White House got Straw fired because he had a high percentage of Muslims in his district, and that led them to question where his true loyalties lay. That sounds pretty far-fetched, but the more popular theories are little better.

Early reports suggest that Straw had been cozying up to Brown as the apparent next Prime Minister in an effort to secure a spot in his cabinet, and that this didn’t sit well with Blair and his allies. Another popular theory is that the White House indeed got him fired, but rather for his opposition to attacking Iran.

Can we infer anything from this? Is Jack Straw’s vociferous objections to a preemptive nuking of Iran indicative of Gordon Brown’s potential policy? Prospect Magazine and others certainly seem to think that a Brown Premiership would be less interventionist than Blair’s. Of course their reasoning is not that Gordon would have any moral objections to starting a huge war without evidence, but rather that he would object to spending billions on such an escapade. Still, whatever the reason, the common belief is that Gordon Brown, while far from an antiwar candidate, would be somewhat less hawkish than, say, John Reid.

If joining the US on its various foreign adventures has become the defining policy of the Blair administration, perhaps the threat of a less willing Prime Minister is what worries Blair’s allies so. And perhaps that is the real reason the Blairite faction is forever seeking the “Stop Brown” candidate.