Thursday, 1 October 2009

Don't just blame Gordon

Madeleine Bunting writes a lot of nonsense, usually, but she has one thing right today. There's something rather off-putting about the current open season on Gordon Brown:

I've no appetite right now to join what increasingly sounds like a mob lynching. There is something about the assembled chorus of received wisdom which makes me go contrary; group think rarely produces good judgments. The Labour party is panicking and there is no better way to assuage their sense of failure than to heap the blame on Brown. Plus, the relish with which Brown's many critics are pitching in makes me suspicious.

I agree. Some of the attacks on Brown - the rumours about pill-popping, for example - have been ugly. And the general assumption that he's a loser has about it the air of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He's not the most inspiring leader in history. It's hard to listen to Brown for any length of time without conceiving the desire to try out an exquisitely painful method of suicide, just to relieve the boredom. He has made mistakes - serious mistakes - with the nation's economy, although they were spending decisions made during his glory days as chancellor, not his arguably necessary moves to support the collapsing banks. Worst of all, he presides over a government that has become thoroughly rotten, in every sense, as well as controlling, intrusive and in many respects incompetent. Nevertheless it's not all his fault, and both the Labour Party and the media delude themselves if they imagine that it is.

There are some things about Gordon Brown that, politically uncongenial though I find him, I find hard to deny. First, his integrity. His commitment to the causes he believes in, notably social justice at home and tackling poverty abroad, is genuine and deep - even if the policies he has pursued to tackle them are the wrong ones. Unlike Blair, evidence of whose self-enrichment continues to emerge, he has never exploited his position for personal gain. He doesn't give the impression of someone in politics for his own ego; nor does he flatter himself that he is doing the will of God (faith, for him, is indistinguishable from the social values of his Presbyterian upbringing - indeed, it's unclear whether he has any strictly religious beliefs at all). Second, his substance: he is someone who has thought and read deeply, who understands and respects ideas - again, in marked contrast to the lightweight Blair. Third, his sense of commitment. Why, it might be asked, is he still in Downing Street when all about him are telling him his time is up? It would be easier to quit. Perhaps some important international job could be created for him (perhaps, given his trusted aide Shriti Vadera's departure for the G20, that is indeed what is being done). I think the answer his clear. He has looked at the various contenders, especially those most likely to succeed him (the Milibands, Alan Johnson, Hattie) and decided that they simply aren't up to the job. If that is indeed what he thinks, I for one would agree with him.

The currently received wisdom is that "anyone but Gordon" would improve Labour's position in the polls, stave off electoral disaster, even transform the prospects for the party next year. I don't believe it. Sure, there would be a short-term lift in the polls. One of the contenders - Johnson - even possesses a natural charm which, though not on Blair's level, might cheer up enough voters to save a few seats. But the underlying malaise of the government would not be cured, and would soon reassert itself under a weaker, less intellectually coherent leader. I make one exception: Peter Mandelson. It's ironic, but true, that the only person in Labour's cabinet who probably would make a competent prime minister is (de facto) constitutionally barred from doing the job. But then Mandelson's own psychological flaws are as well documented as Brown's are, and he has at least as many enemies.

It also seems to me that many of the criticisms of Brown's presentational style and the unfavourable comparisons with Blair may actually be to his credit. As Bunting correctly points out, "New Labour was all about triangulation. Blair did it all the time, facing both ways. The only difference is that Blair was more adept, Brown is clunky – but that is a difference of style not substance." But why is Brown so clunky? I think it's because of his deepseated honesty. Put bluntly, he's a bad liar. When he is forced, for political reasons, to enunciate shallow, crowd-pleasing sentiments that he does not really believe, his heart isn't in it. And it shows.

It's easy to blame everything on Gordon Brown - and the fact that he is such a dominant figure makes it tempting. Given the collapse in Labour support - not just unfavourable polls, but the loss of local government in whole swathes of the country and what appears to me at least to be a slow-gathering but now almost palpable hatred for the whole lot of them - it's natural that Brown personally should be the focus of discontent within the party and vitriol from outside it. To assume that the mess can be laid at the door of the prime minister and his well-attested "psychological flaws". Nothing goes well for him, after all. Like some reverse Midas, everything he touches turns to shit. But what if it's the other way around? What if - and I know it's a counterintuitive idea - Gordon Brown's obstinacy, his brooding and controlling personality, his sheer force of character, is the only thing still holding the government together?

The lack of "vision" is often sighted as a reason for Labour's current mess. The government has run out of steam, it is claimed; it is just treading water; they have nothing new to offer; they have been in power too long. Well, that last part is true: they have been in power too long, and it shows. But it shows not in a lack of vision, or in any slowing down of legislative enthusiasm, but in the opposite. After twelve years, New Labour has gone some way towards moulding the country in its image, as a more heavily regulated and invigilated society in which the goverment and its supposedly arms-length proxies looms ever larger and takes an ever closer interest in the minutiae of life; where there are more state employees and more laws; where a private child-sharing arrangement between two mothers can be deemed illegal. There has been no slackening of pace under Gordon Brown, only a quickening of it. And, whatever their feelings about Brown's leadership or the state of the opinion polls, almost everyone in the party is fully signed up to this statist agenda.

As Bunting puts it, "Labour wanted a generation in power ... Brown is entirely right to talk of work unfinished, a job half done, and journalists are the least well-equipped to complain." When he talks of change, he doesn't mean change from what has gone before, but continued change in the direction that he has been following for more than a decade. The trouble is, the country no longer wants this sort of change, which has gone too far already. It wants a change of direction. No Labour government is going to give us that.

The delusion suffered by pro-statist Labour members and sympathisers - Polly Toynbee, for example - who want to get rid of Gordon Brown is quite simple. Believing in the Labour programme, yet realising how unpopular the government has become, they are unable to accept that it could be the policies that are unpopular, that it's the accumulated failures of twelve years of Blair-Brown and subsequently Brown-Mandelson leadership that lie behind the slump. So they blame Gordon himself, not for his policies, but for his personality. Moreover, because the tendency of modern British politics it to focus everything on the personality of the leader, this sentiment is too easily expressed as hatred of the man, while his gloomy image makes the explanation easy to believe. That's a fundamental mistake. People don't want rid of Gordon Brown because of who he is, but because of what his party has done.