Brown’s non apology

by Chris Ames

Gordon Brown’s letter to Sir John Chilcot is published on the Politics Home website. It is typical Brown – no admission of error, no apology, a lot of spin. It may be Brown’s way of limiting the political damage, but to puff such a letter out with so much spin must have seriously alienated the Inquiry.

The letter begins: “Further to my evidence to your Inquiry on 5 March, I want to provide you with more detail about defence spending.” In the middle is a quote from what Brown said at Prime Minister’s Questions: “I accept that…” Brown does not even have the decency to set out his correction in a form of words put together specifically for Chilcot.

The letter ends: “I also made clear that every additional urgent operational requirement requested for Iraq, as for Afghanistan, was met by the Treasury.” Why does Brown feel the need to put such blatant spin on the end of the letter – re-iterating something he said during his appearance? Does he think it remotely conceivable that this point will have escaped the Inquiry’s attention?

7 comments to this article

  1. Anthony

    on March 18, 2010 at 2:07 pm -

    I should be very surprised if Gordon Brown wrote that letter. Much more likely it was written by the civil servant who wrote his Chilcot script. What we don’t know is whether it was the original script that was wrong or whether Brown garbled it in the delivery.

    I do agree though that a stronger and wiser man would have apologised and then explained. The actual error was not a serious one. An unwillingness to apologise simply draws continuing attention to the error and makes it appear more serious than in fact it was.

    It does seem that Brown has a shortcoming when it comes to the ability to apologise when it would be sensible to do so.

  2. Stan Rosenthal

    on March 18, 2010 at 6:46 pm -

    As you say, Anthony, the error wasn’t a serious one.

    The issue was about whether Brown reduced the military budget in certain years. In fact the figures show that he granted them increases (in net terms) in all the reviews he was involved with. The annual reductions were in the amounts that were actually spent by the MoD, which as Brown explained, were due to such things as underspending by the MoD, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and the changes to inflationary adjustments after the reviews had been agreed.

    His mistake was in referring to spending when he was actually talking about the budgets he had agreed. Hardly the capital offence that his critics would like us to believe..

    As for whether he should have apologised for this semantic slip-up, in normal circumstances most certainly. However with the kind of media we have got here any apology would simply have been interpreted as an admission of a serious error.

  3. Iain Paton

    on March 18, 2010 at 8:36 pm -

    The error was a deliberate, serious and mendacious error.

    Brown sought to spin a continued increase in defence spending in “cash terms”. This is meaningless, it’s like comparing 15p for a pint in 1973 with £3.50 for a pint in 2010. Brown never said “cash terms” and his intention was to be vague at Chilcot and – if challenged later – to claim he meant “cash terms” and hope he would get away with it.

    He slipped up at the end though. He claimed an increase in “real terms” on page 120 of the evidence, the fourteenth time he had claimed an increase …including an earlier claim that the defence budget was ‘significantly larger’.

    Once it became apparent that Brown had made the “real terms” claim, he was stuck. The budget and spend data from DASA (included in his letter) shows that he was wrong, but this had been discovered anyway. However, it isn’t only the case that Brown was spinning continued “real terms” growth since 1997 (when it wasn’t), he was spinning it in “cash terms” to ‘big it up’.

    This is no mistake or error or slip. Anyone with a basic grasp of economics is familiar with the concept of using a single comparator price year and applying an index of annual multipliers to present a trend or forecast in “real terms”. Check any basic economics report.

    Brown knew exactly what he was doing and he has been rumbled…if he didn’t fully understand the difference between “cash” and “real terms” after ten years as Chancellor….hmmm, might explain a few things.

    I wonder if Chilcot wrote privately and discreetly to Brown to suggest he reconsidered his evidence. It wouldn’t surprise me.

  4. Iain Paton

    on March 18, 2010 at 8:48 pm -

    Stan said: “His mistake was in referring to spending when he was actually talking about the budgets he had agreed”

    The budget decreased in real terms for four years including 2002/2003 and 2007/2008.

    Brown’s letter doesn’t show the real terms change for the budget so I did the sums. Letter doesn’t say that the last column is a percentage either. Fairly shoddy and contemptous stuff!

    This doesn’t consider defence inflation either…that would present a more damning picture, with the modest increases (and decreases) in real-term budgets outstripped by the greater increase in equipment cost….the NHS is in a similar situation with regard to medical materials.

  5. Stan Rosenthal

    on March 18, 2010 at 10:34 pm -

    Iain,you are obviously another one who doesn’t take in facts that do not fit your agenda.

    Brown’s letter makes it quite clear that the budgets of the MoD increased in REAL terms for the years in question. It was expenditure that fell short in certain years for the reasons that were given. Brown was responsible for the budget allocations, not for how those allocations were spent.

    Defence inflation is quite another matter. On that basis Defence would have swallowed up huge sums at the expense of vital public expenditure elsewhere (as I have explained in a previous comment elsewhere).

  6. Anthony

    on March 19, 2010 at 12:10 am -

    Happily I can demonstrate my even-handedness by disagreeing with both Iain and Stan.

    Given what a can of worms the Mod procurement budget is, any Chancellor who increased it at the rate of increase in prices prevailing in the defence industry would be completely bonkers. To do so would only further encourage the incompetence, inefficiency and I suspect frequent corruption that is the hallmark of the relationship between MoD and the defence industry. It is a relationship between those who will one day work in the defence industry and those who used to work in the MoD. It stinks.

    On the other hand, the claim that allocations rose in real terms depends on the use of the GDP deflator, which is the Treasury’s own little corrupt practice. By setting the GDP Deflator artificially low each year, they achieve a PR double whammy. They can claim that GDP itself is increasing in real terms when it isn’t and they can claim to have increased government expenditure in real terms when they haven’t.

    In this case, I think it would be true to say that they have increased defence allocations in relation to a genuine measure of economic inflation, but by much less than it appears if you use the dubious GDP Deflator.

    But as usual, the whole thing is a smokescreen. Since we have had economic growth under our glorious New Labour Government and its heroic Chancellor, real-terms increases in defence expenditure are only to be expected and nothing to be proud of. I have no idea whether defence expenditure has risen in relation to the overall size of the GDP, but that is surely the key issue, not its relationship to the bogus GDP Deflator.

  7. Iain Paton

    on March 19, 2010 at 9:40 pm -

    In my defence, I did not suggest that defence budget should be blindly pegged to defence inflation….I’ve seen enough to realise that it tends to be Tesco Value at M&S prices! The corporate hospitality at Farnborough etc must be paid for from something….

    MoD budgets did not increase in real terms…I did the sums that Brown’s letter left out. In four years they decreased, and five minutes with a spreadsheet and calculator proves this.

    Cash£bn Real Terms Diff %
    1980-1981 10.7 31.94
    1981-1982 12.1 32.95 1.01 3.2%
    1982-1983 14 35.64 2.69 8.2%
    1983-1984 16 38.93 3.29 9.2%
    1984-1985 17 39.26 0.33 0.8%
    1985-1986 18.1 39.57 0.31 0.8%
    1986-1987 18.5 39.19 -0.38 -1.0%
    1987-1988 18.8 37.67 -1.52 -3.9%
    1988-1989 19.2 36.02 -1.65 -4.4%
    1989-1990 20.1 35.21 -0.81 -2.2%
    1990-1991 21.2 34.42 -0.79 -2.2%
    1991-1992 22.8 34.95 0.53 1.5%
    1992-1993 24.2 35.98 1.03 2.9%
    1993-1994 23.5 34.01 -1.97 -5.5%
    1994-1995 23.5 33.49 -0.52 -1.5%
    1995-1996 21.7 30.06 -3.43 -10.2%
    1996-1997 21.4 28.58 -1.48 -4.9%
    1997-1998 21.8 28.37 -0.21 -0.7%
    1998-1999 22.24 28.35 -0.02 -0.1%
    1999-2000 22.3 27.87 -0.48 -1.7%
    2000-2001 22.98 28.35 0.48 1.7%
    2001-2002 23.57 28.44 0.09 0.3%
    2002-2003 24.2 28.29 -0.15 -0.5%
    2003-2004 25.58 29.08 0.79 2.8%
    2004-2005 26.48 29.29 0.21 0.7%
    2005-2006 27.6 29.97 0.68 2.3%
    2006-2007 28.66 30.23 0.26 0.9%
    2007-2008 29.969 30.15 -0.08 -0.3%
    2008-2009 30.76 30.76 0.61 2.0%
    2009-2010 31.92 31.3 0.54 1.8%
    2010-2011 33.33 31.96 0.66 2.1%