JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 2.9.11
AS BRITAIN returns from its holidays, in this autumn of 2011, there’s no shortage of evidence of political failure, at every level of our national life. The City of Edinburgh is in uproar over its long-running tram disaster, a lamentable saga involving staggering displays of incompetence and cynicism at all levels. Scotland is in its usual uproar over its constitutional future, with many now casting doubt on the SNP’s competence to develop a coherent plan for independenc. And the UK looks increasingly like a slowly failing state, with an out-of-touch millionaire government wedded to a discredited ideology, and apparently incapable of dealing even-handedly with the various forms of rampant greed and dishonesty that have come to scar our national life.
It’s a depressing picture; but if we still have the energy to try to understand what has gone wrong with our politics, then we could do a lot worse, this weekend, than consider the brooding figure of James Gordon Brown, formerly our Prime Minister, and now once again a humble backbench MP, for the constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. In the welter of bitter criticism that has followed the end of Gordon Brown’s premiership – given an extra, sharp twist this weekend with the imminent publication of a damning memoir by his old friend and political comrade, Alistair Darling – it’s perhaps difficult to remember both the high, glittering promise of Gordon Brown’s early career, and the substantial record of achievement with which he was credited throughout most of his decade as Chancellor of the Exchequer, from 1997 to 2007.
Intellectually brilliant, untainted by personal greed, and firmly rooted in the strong social-democratic ethos of the community in which he was raised, Brown was always one of the political stars of his generation, full of energy, idealism, and a passion for social justice. And there were times, in the 1990’s and beyond, when Gordon Brown truly seemed like the world-class politician Britain had been waiting for; to see him throw himself into the Make Poverty History campaign of 2000, or speak at Donald Dewar’s funeral in that same year, was to see a brilliant man at the height of his powers, a sometimes electrifying combination of intellectual firepower, strong egalitarian principles, and sheer force of personality.
Yet now, all that is left of this briliant career is an embarrassing ruin; a welter of ugly accusations about bullying and shouting, vanity and scheming, and toxic relationships with other ministers. And if we are to rebuld our politics, we need to begin to understand exactly how so much political talent and idealism became lost to us, as a real force for good in our world.
So here are a couple of ideas at least, about the tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions that is the career of Gordon Brown. In the first place, there is the fundamental failure of the historic compromise Gordon Brown and Tony Blair tried to make with the forces of unregulated or poorly regulated late-20th-century capitalism. Like Bill Clinton in the United States, Brown thought he could “triangulate” between the socially disruptive and divisive forces of the economic system he embraced, and the socially cohesive values he called his own. But in the end, the inherent contradictions of the project brought him not only the humiliation of economic failure, and the hatred of those who felt that he had betrayed the very principles for which he stood; but a history of compromise with the brutalist ethos of the times that seemed, at the personal level, to corrode all sense of compassion and decency among some of Brown’s inner circle, to increase the explosive tensions in his own personality, and – at times – to legitimise the nastiest and most cynical kinds of competitive political power-play.
Then secondly, there is the blatant mismatch – if those now describing his Premiership are to be believed – between the values Brown embraced in public, and the detail of his own personal conduct. In this respect, Brown is probably part of a transitional generation of leaders; a generation which began its political life in an age when eminent men could preserve a clear distinction between public life and private conduct, but which now finds itself living in an age when the public demands a clear consistency between the two, on pain of fierce accusations of hypocrisy. The idea that their petulant or high-handed private behaviour might be seen as conflicting with their egalitarian principles never occurred to this generation of men; never, that is, until the intrusive television cameras and microphones of our age began to make their private behavour a public issue, and to enforce the late-20th-century understanding that the personal is, in fact, political.
So what can we learn from the tragedy of Gordon Brown? In brief, that if we wonder why our politics no longer works, then at least some of the answers are fairly obvious. In the first place, with the encouragement of a generation of politicians who should have known better, we have tolerated for too long an economic system that increasingly renders our politicians powerless to deliver the social goods which most of us say we value; like Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and Bill Clinton themselves, we have tried too hard to believe that confrontation can be avoided, with those who believe, when the chips are down, that their own right to maximise profit trumps every other social goal.
And in the second place, we now demand a level of bland moral consistency from our politicians that no fallible human being can deliver, and that increasingly drives the talented and the interesting out of the profession completely. If we want better politicians, in other words, we need to change ourselves; we need to become braver, more radical, more demanding, more intellectually rigorous, and also – when necessary – more forgiving. And if we do not make those changes, then it looks as if we will continue to have the political class we deserve: as bland, boring, dishonest, ineffectual and weak as Gordon Brown once looked as if he could never be, in the pride of his socialist youth; but as he perhaps gradually became, under the crushing pressure of the times.