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Mandelson's latest deceit: claims to be running the country

The less power they have the more grandiose their claims, the law satirised by the Marx Brothers in Freedonia has just been confirmed by Britain's "Lord High Everything".
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
22 February 2010

Having just asked the electorate to "look again" Gordon Brown launched his party's supposedly new election slogan, "A Future Fair for All". The Mail on Sunday did as he asked, looked again and found a picture of him with exactly the same slogan taken seven years ago! Meanwhile, Andrew Rawnsley's account of Brown's bullying and poor temper, the originality of which consists only in his having strung all the stories together into a single history, steals the headlines from Labour's incompetance. It could hardly be a worse launch.

So Peter Mandelson went into the breech, appearing on the Andrew Marr show to steady nerves. The Prime Minister occasionally gets angry "with himself" - would you want it any other way?

But I was struck by Mandelson's passing remark. Rawnsley, the Lord High Peter said in lofty tones, writes these things because he "has got books to sell".

"We, in contrast, have got a country to run and that's what we're going to get on with."

This absurd claim was let pass like so much steam in the wind. The idea that the government should be in charge appeals to the vanity of the political class and their self-importance. It's nonesense. Imagine if an American President claimed to be "running the USA". he'd be howled down, despite considerable more powers over that country's fate than anybody in the UK has over this country.

Ralph Dahrendorf once said to me how he was constantly amused at how British Chancellors would say they were "running the economy", I think Norman Lamont was in post at the time, when clearly they couldn't and when no German politician would say anything so silly, despite a far better claim. As a relative outsider he was recognising an aspect of the inflated self-importance of Westminster; the most those in the top positions of executive power in Britain can claim to be doing is running the government.

Leaving aside the fact that the claim to be running the country is arrogant, dictatorial, presumptious and wrong, how good are they at the job they are supposedly "getting on with"? The answer can be found by glancing at the new site launched by Andreas Whittam Smith Broken Government. From Foot and Mouth to deregulating the financial sector, it is fair to say that they are bad at runing the government - and are messing up the country.

Which brings me back to Rawnsley's account. Being on the unoriginal side of sensationalism he doesn't see a good story when it demands that he thinks for himself. The Observer carries an extract of his account of the banking crisis, familiar to anyone who wanted to know. The big banks were going bust. Both RBS and HBOS were about to close down. Gordon Brown agreed that the government had to do the only thing it could do, there being no alternative other than the entire banking system freezing as the cash machines were turned off. This action of his is presented as a demonstration of leadership. But it was no more decisive that John Major and Norman Lamont leaving the European exchange rate mechanism and letting the pound fall on Black Wednesday many years ago.

Brown was not "running" the response to the crash, the crash was running him.

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