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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 07:26 GMT 08:26 UK
The UK's longest-serving chancellor - dour or dashing?
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News Online business reporter

On Tuesday, Gordon Brown becomes the UK's longest continuously serving Chancellor of the Exchequer since the 1820s, overtaking David Lloyd George who served for seven years and 43 days between 1908 and 1915.

Gordon Brown
Statistics seems to form the foundation of Mr Brown's world

Academic in his outlook and with both a first class degree and a PhD from Edinburgh University, Mr Brown is nothing if not complicated. It comes as no surprise that he is an ideas man. His professional facade is serious and sombre, and he appears well read, thoughtful and thorough.

As chancellor Mr Brown has won widespread praise for having secured the UK's economic stability and for the country's extremely strong economic performance. Prime Minister Tony Blair has described him as "brilliant" and a "tremendous asset to the country".

But Mr Brown's critics point out that much of his success must be attributed to the lucky timing of his appointment: Mr Brown was fortunate in that he inherited a strong economy from the Tories.

Critics also see Mr Brown as a meddler whose actions have led to a sharp increase in red tape for business. And they hit out at what they see as an unsustainable rise in government spending, much of it based on a rise in borrowing.

That - and his willingness to introduce new regulation and a string of new indirect taxes along with tax relief and incentives that are often too complicated to be effective - have led to accusations that he remains an old-fashioned, tinkering Labour chancellor whose instinct it is to complicate things.

Mr Brown has also been described as dour, nerdy and even "psychologically flawed". And there is little doubt that he is often struggling when faced with populist open-necked shirt type questions that require charming and witty answers rather than facts and figures about the state of the economy.

Accurate forecasts

It can sometimes appear as if statistics form the foundation of Mr Brown's world.

Indeed, there should be comfort in the figures which show that he has overseen the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth in the UK in the last two centuries. The UK economy has expanded during every quarter since Mr Brown became chancellor, averaging 2.7% output growth per year, despite a string of global upheaval such as the Asian financial crisis, the end of the dotcom boom and the 11 September attacks.

Gordon Brown as a happy father
Has becoming a father changed Mr Brown?

Much of it has been achieved thanks to Mr Brown's decision - in spring 1997, immediately after Labour returned to government - to make the Bank of England independent and allow it to set interest rates without interference from the government.

In the midst of all this global chaos, the move enabled Mr Brown to oversee the emergence of an economy with low inflation - averaging around 2.5% per year during his tenure - and unemployment at its lowest level since the mid 1970s.

Moreover, although unlikely in reality, it sometimes seems as if it was all part of his plan, that he knew exactly what to expect all along.

Mr Brown's economic forecasts have routinely been dismissed by economists, yet many of them have been forced to eat humble pie along the way when the Iron Chancellor was proven right.

Passionate and warm

But Mr Brown is changing. His image as a man who runs UK Plc like a prudent accountant has been rocked both by his personal triumphs and tragedy, and by the way he manages the economy.

Gone are the early days of Mr Brown the bachelor, seemingly addicted to work, totally dedicated to his career and obsessed with keeping government spending under control.

Gordon Brown
Mr Brown is no longer burdened by his lack of obvious human warmth

In his place a more rounded person has appeared: Mr Brown as a proud groom getting married to PR executive Sarah Macaulay in 2000. Mr Brown as a grieving father following the death of his daughter Jennifer in 2002. And a year later, Mr Brown as a jubilant dad, looking awkward and ecstatic at the same time while showing off his baby son John.

It seems that Mr Brown is no longer as burdened by his lack of obvious human warmth as he used to be. His friends describe him as passionate and warm, and insiders say the group of advisors and experts he likes to surround himself with is a good fun bunch of highly intelligent, young people.

Cracks are appearing

Mr Brown's increasingly human face may appeal to voters and could put him in good stead to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister. But his softer touch on the economy has been much less warmly welcomed.

His critics insist that the UK has not escaped unscathed from the recent hits to the world economy after all. Instead, problems have been stored up for the future, the chancellor having responded by increasing government borrowing in order to boost spending and the Bank of England responding by cutting interest rates from 6% in 2001 to a low of 3.5% in 2003, thereby boosting consumer spending.

Hence, Mr Brown has moved from borrowing virtually nothing during his first year in office to borrow 23bn in 2002-3 and 33bn in 2003-4.

Critics point out that Britain's balance of payments is widening too, with the current account deficit reaching 19bn last year: This is low when compared with the late 1980s, but a concern to some nevertheless.

Future problems

Even critics accept that the loosening of both fiscal and monetary policy have helped bolster the UK economy, but with consumer debts approaching a trillion pounds and with the housing market potentially overheating the risks are great.

The cost of avoiding small-scale recessions in the short run could well lead to a major hit if and when the borrowing bubble or the housing market burst, doomsayers insist.

Also, the vast increase in public investment has not been matched by business investment which has fallen to less than 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) from 15% at its peak during the 1980s.

Moreover, critics insist that in areas where Mr Brown has indeed been successful, he would be wrong to take all the credit himself.

They say that much of the UK's success in recent years could be attributed to the structural economic reforms - such as the privatisation of public companies, the deregulation of industry and the curbing of the powers of trade unions - and many of these reforms were set in train by the former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Critics insist Mr Brown should have built on the structural changes and the productivity improvements seen in the private sector by implementing similar reforms in the public sector to raise productivity there as well.

With regards to overall productivity, the UK has improved relative to Germany and France, but still lags the US, a fact often pointed out by some critics.

Mr Brown's performance: Miracle or mirage? Tell us what you think.

Mr Brown's performance: Miracle or mirage? Readers' views: As an Accountant I understood where I was paying taxes before Labour came to power, I now have little idea as there are so many "stealth" charges and levies and a growing number of credits which no-one seems to understand. In my opinion the government has a duty to ensure that the taxation system in its entirety is comprehensible to everyone. Gordon Brown has clearly failed this duty.
Billy, Leeds

People who say that Brown "inherited a good economy" from the last Tory government obviously weren't among the 3 million or so unemployed at that time, and therefore didn't notice how much of mess the economy was in. Right now unemployment is at its lowest level for a generation and that is solely due to Gordon Brown. The only people who say otherwise are jealous Tories who can't accept the fact that a Labour chancellor is succeeding where previous Conservative chancellors failed!
Alun Evans, London, England

Yes, he's a great chancellor, but never mind that: he's a brooding malcontent who oozes sex-appeal.
Catriona, Glasgow, UK

Brown has made life very difficult for young people in particular trying to get somewhere in life. If teenagers see how twentysomethings are struggling to make ends meet even with reasonable salaries, there will be a ticking time bomb of extreme apathy on its way; bad news.
Mark S, Reading UK

It is the smile that tells a story for me. Is that really genuine??? Poor guy.
JN, Essex

Lucky Gordon Brown - he has helped the UK profit from an economy set well by Thatcher and Major!
Barry Rochfort, Assac, France

Living in Europe I have witnessed the miracle UK economy from afar which contrasts greatly with a laggard Euro region. Brown's management has been excellent and after seven years in power, how much longer can critics claim it is all to do with what he inherited? Labour deserves a third term.
Shaun O'Byrne, Gosseldange, Luxembourg

Typical 'new' socialist. Plundering the working classes to assuage his own middle class guilt.
Doug Reid, London, UK

Mr Brown has been the most successful Chancellor in my lifetime. I have seen a huge difference to my surroundings in terms of wealth, happiness and feel good factor and I think it is all attributable to him.
Robert Campbell, Loch Lomond, Scotland

Unsustainable household debt, unsustainable government debt, high and rising taxation, billions wasted on the unproductive public sector to hold up the economy, Enron style off balance sheet debt in the form of the government's private finance initiative (PFI), business competitiveness sliding at an alarming rate, rampant house prices that have disenfranchised a generation, new measures of inflation that ignore the real costs of living. A miracle? Brown is more like a magician with his illusory tricks. But like a magician people will eventually learn that it was just a trick.
Peter Webb, UK

Neither mirage or miracle but a success. Brown is brighter than most politicians (although the real miracle might be that he has escaped the 'intellectual' label given to a number of notable halfwits in other parties) and has largely been able to play a long game. The results are clear to see. Despite not being an habitual Labour voter, I think that his approach taken more broadly across government would be a very good thing and look forward to a period of Brown leadership beyond the Treasury.
Richard Taylor, United Kingdom

Gordon Brown has taken huge amounts of money in stealth taxes, and by taxing pensions has had a hand in the fall of pensions values which is now affecting many people of my age. Given the stealth taxation that he has imposed, one wonders what the country would be doing had this money not been taken by him. Until there is proof about improvements in public services and not just ministerial "spin", he doesn't come across as any better than previous chancellors, possibly even worse in my view.
Peter Forbes, Rushden, Northants

I had the pleasure of being Mr Brown's driver for two weeks while his usual driver was off work. I found him to be dedicated to his work and caring of the "man in the street". He is one of the most genuine men I have ever met.
Peter Day, Essex

The strong economy was inherited from the last Tory regime. Since then he has steadily made life harder for families with the increase in the tax burden. We have got nothing to thank him for and the sooner he is voted back to political obscurity the better. If he becomes the next PM, I will try to get a job abroad.
Pat, Milton Keynes, UK

A conjurer, whose obvious intelligence has created a labyrinth of smoke and mirrors that will ensure the failure of whoever takes over from him. Within this whirlwind of confusion, Mr Brown has fed his parochial hungry from the larder that was re-stocked by Lady Thatcher's team, turning the 1997 harvest into another pile of manure.
Paul S. Lichfield, Dis-UK

Yes he has done well, but not that well. He inherited from Kenneth Clarke a growing economy with low inflation and falling unemployment. All he has really done is to keep things much as they were. I still think we would now have a stronger economy if Mr Clarke had been allowed to continue as chancellor. On a personal level, Gordon Brown is a rather obnoxious man. He never gave John Major's government credit for anything when he was in opposition, but once he was in power he was happy to enjoy the fruits of their achievements.
Quentin Hawkins, Croydon, UK

I think Mr Brown has done a good job; interest rates are low and employment is high we've never had it so good. No, I do not think Mrs Thatcher should be given credit for this, otherwise we would not have had the mess made by the Tory chancellors before Mr Brown came to power. Interest rates, unemployment and mortgage rates were high with thousands losing their homes. He has stopped this.
David Martin, Bristol England

I think Mr Brown was lucky to inherit a stable economy from the Tories. He has raised a lot of money by introducing nearly 70 additional taxes, yet is borrowing billions more, which will have to be repaid. Prudent Chancellor? I don't think so.
Tom Drake, Bury St Edmunds, England

I think Mr Brown has served us well, with great wisdom, and deserves a round of applause!
Hazel Waterer, Chorleywood, UK.

I think that the Bank of England should take all the credit for keeping the economy stable. Mr Brown, as you have rightly said, has stored problems for the future. What would have happened if we had been in the European Union system and the Bank of England had been unable to move rates at all? Different scenario then!
Keith Baldwin, Chepstow, Wales

I think Gordon Brown has been both clever and lucky, both of which are good for all of us. I am also impressed by his efforts to reduce the debts of the poor nations. A good man whom we are lucky to have on our side.
Ken, Bath, England

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