Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Two socialists, one bottle

Europe has had an interesting double-act on his hands during the economic crisis, though not a great deal of attention has been paid to it.

On the surface there are many similarities. Britain and Spain both have socialist prime ministers, both of whom were in office well before the crisis struck and both of whom present themselves as the best people for the job of handling the mess they did more than a little to inflame.

Unlike the Greek socialists, both Gordon Brown and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero are in the difficult position of not being able to blame their predecessors for the almighty mess their countries are in. Zapatero has led his Socialist government since 2004 while Brown has effectively held the reins of the British economy since 1997. No escaping that one then.

But differences between the two become more apparent the further you dig. A feature in Monday's FT explained how "Spain was one of the few countries to run a budget surplus during the good times [and] entered the crisis with a low level of government debt - even now, at more than 55 per cent of GDP, it is 20 percentage points below the eurozone average"

The great difference between the two though comes, alas, from what they are actually willing to do about it. For Zapatero, the crisis gave a cold sobering slap in the face to a government that was riding on an artificially-induced post-euro euphoria. He now openly talks of 'austerity' and 'cuts', admitting that necessity commands he must do the unpopular but right thing.

What is Brown's answer? Mo' spending, mo' spending, mo' spending!

While his iberian counterpart talks frankly and honestly to the Spanish people about the hard times ahead, Brown prefers to hide his head up his own backside while criticising the leader of the opposition for saying the same thing. No wonder Ellie Gellard wanted to get rid.

This behaviour represents two things. Firstly, Labour's inability to engage with voters in an adult manner - why speak honestly when you can dangle debt-funded welfare treats infront of the electorate? Secondly, Brown's infamous inability to make tough decisions.

To his credit, Zapatero has excelled on this front, despite having a great deal to lose. The Spanish general elections are only two years away and, like Labour, the Spanish Socialists rely heavily on the trade unions, who are not going to be happy.

Undeterred, Zapatero told the FT (emphasis added): "We've just taken difficult decisions. Raising VAT, I can tell you that's not something that's been done to get people applauding us. You just have to look at the reaction of public opinion. From here to the elections our policy is going to have to be one of austerity and cost cutting ... There is no other way."

Can you imagine such talk from Brown? No, of course you can't. His claim to be a conviction politician has been exposed as the biggest single lie of his premiership (start as you mean to go on they say...)

Speaking of which, I couldn't help reading Zapatero's austerity plan without thinking of that other great conviction politician Brown facetiously compared himself to. Could this socialist be a Spanish Thatcher in the making?

The prospect is certainly an amusing one, but the evidence is compelling. Zapatero told the FT he plans to raise VAT, confront unions over labour reform, raise productivity, increase flexibility and emasculate the bureaucratic and spendthrift regional governments.

The idea of a Thatcherite socialist might sound something of a bad joke, but Zapatero's steadfast ability to look reality in the face and make tough fiscal decisions shows the only joke in the room to be Gordon Brown.

Another four years of Labour however would not be at all funny.

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