The gravedigger in Downing Street
Will Gordon Brown’s ‘revolution’ put the final nail in the coffin of political life?
Did I miss something? Apparently a revolution has taken place in Britain during the past few days. I know that my old friend Karl Marx said the revolution comes ‘like a thief in the night’, but to judge by recent reports I must have been asleep for a week.
Since Gordon Brown used the word ‘change’ eight times in three minutes in his first speech as prime minister outside Downing Street, observers have fallen over themselves to fawn about his ‘brave’ new cabinet, his authoritative leadership and his far-sighted transformation and renewal of politics.
The astonishing media reaction to the announcement of Brown’s government has had to be seen to be believed – and even then, it has been difficult to credit it. A mass media suck-up like this has not been seen since…well, since Tony Blair took over as prime minister. But unlike ‘new broom’ Brown, he had not been in government for the previous 10 years.
The many Brown groupies and cheerleaders in the media have been experiencing the orgasm forcibly delayed for a decade. The political editor of the New Statesman even writes this week about ‘the Brown revolution’ as a ‘funny sort of insurrection, characterised by caution and stealth rather than flag-waving and dancing in the streets that would usually accompany such momentous events’. He’s right about the shortage of street parties, although a revolution characterised by caution might once have struck the left as a slight contradiction. But even commentators outside Brown’s natural orbit, whether from the human rights lobby Liberty or the conservative tabloid press, have seemed willing to accept the line that the new New Labour government means major changes – and for the better.
So what’s going on? Of course nobody need accept the ‘change’ rhetoric at face value. Britain’s longest-serving chancellor of the exchequer, who exercised unprecedented influence over other departments of government, should not be allowed to get way with pretending that he weren’t even there, guv’nor, or didn’t really know there was a war in Iraq.
However, it is not enough simply to respond that Brown means more of the same. (A sure sign that this argument is useless is that the Conservatives quickly embraced it.) Things clearly are changing under Brown. But this is no ‘revolution’. And from the point of view of politics, the changes are not for the better.
Brown’s emphasis on ‘change’ is intended as another way of saying ‘I am leading the Not Tony Blair Party’. And it is on that narrow, knee-jerk basis that the media have taken him to their bosom. Most of the praise for Brown is really an attack on Blair, expressing the bitter disappointment of many in the professional classes who naively invested all their hopes in him a decade ago. In slapping Brown on the back before he has barely got through the door of Number 10, they are really taking sideswipes at Blair.
To this end, they have seemed wilfully to ignore the inconvenient facts about Brown’s actions and intentions. For example, all the praise for Brown’s return to cabinet government rather than Blair-style ‘sofa government’ misses the point that Brown has packed his cabinet with inexperienced and malleable types who will obey his every order. And those marvelling about Brown’s calm response to the latest terror campaign, and his ‘refusal’ to demand more draconian powers in response, seem to have forgotten that he already made clear his support for more security measures long before those failed bomb attacks, for example stating his intention to lengthen beyond 28 days the period that terror suspects can be detained without charge.
That is not, however, the only change that Brown has signed up to. Constitutional reform is apparently back on the agenda, with pledges to give up the prime minister’s unquestioned authority to wage war or appoint bishops. Now, anything that diminishes the power of the Crown prerogative – the constitutional device which grants the government these powers – ought to be welcome to democrats. Those tempted to celebrate a victory for the anti-war movement, however, might note that parliament has not voted against any of Britain’s modern wars, up to and including Iraq.
While Brown pledges support for an elected House of Lords, in practice he is busily appointing stooge peers so that they can join his government. And his chipping away at the Crown prerogative has of course stopped well short of questioning the role of the monarchy, which provides the shield for the executive’s extraordinary powers. Brown appears to be as big a royal toady as every Labour prime minister before him; possibly a bigger one, to judge by the near-hour he spent chatting with Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace when she invited him to form ‘her’ next government.
But then, what do we expect when Brown himself is a monarchical politician? We pointed out on spiked that his long-running power struggle with Blair was not a political contest between differing wings of a party, but more like the court politics of personal cliques manoeuvring for the Crown. Like a deposed medieval monarch, Blair took his entire court with him when he departed. Brown was crowned, and has since appointed his own courtly minions to government; indeed his royal patronage extends so far that he has made even more ministerial appointments than Blair.
Brown’s ‘brave’ decision to include non-Labour figures in his government highlights the most important change that is taking place. Just as the public smoking ban comes into force in England, Brown’s new government threatens to bring the last gasp for politics in public life, too.
His promise to create a ‘government of all the talents’ hardly means that it will be full of talented people. It means a government that self-consciously goes beyond his party, and well beyond any idea of standing for a distinct set of principles. It is a government of ‘all the talents’, except the gifts of political commitment and leadership.
Assembling non-party figures in positions of power emphasises the managerial, non-ideological character of Brown’s government, a regime of business beancounters and state functionaries. Even the new cabinet ministers from within Labour ranks tend to fit the same mould. They are policy wonks and think-tankers who represent no political movement or popular constituency in the real world. Or they are Westminster insiders like Jacqui Smith, now known as ‘Home Secretary Who?’, having risen without trace. All depend entirely on Brown’s patronage for their position in life, just as any aspiring bank executive relies upon the favour of top management.
It is as if Brown has said, ‘we know that the media and public are very cynical about party politics – so let’s make clear that we agree with them!’. Rather than challenging the anti-political mood in society, our ‘revolutionary’ Labour premier is internalising it. I have written before about the rise of ‘no-party politics’ in the UK over recent years, where there are no loyal bases of support and no firm principles. Now Brown is incorporating the spirit of no-party politics into the Labour Party and government, along with unelected and unaccountable authorities.
The obvious change of the government’s image from Blair to Brown is in line with this shift. Brown has obviously decided to play the safe, non-political card, to go along with the public image of him as a dour but reliable pair of hands and try to contrast that to the more showbusiness style of a Blair or a David Cameron. This, however, is simply another way of emphasising matters of personal style over political substance, just as the appointment of somebody such as former Metropolitan Police chief Lord Stevens to the government is another, duller form of celebrity politics.
In all this, the Brown ‘revolution’ is more likely to be a funeral than a street party, banging the final nail into the coffin of political life and digging a grave for any grand political visions of changing society.
(The death of the left, long foretold and expected, has been finally confirmed by its inability to stand a candidate either for Labour leader or deputy leader, or even to offer any meaningful criticism of Brown beyond ‘please sir, can we have a corner for OUR talents?’)
What is left behind will be the managerial politics of low expectations, of seeking to manage people’s personal behaviour and lower their horizons. The sort of eco-austerity favoured by Brown and his new ministers in charge of everything from the foreign office to housing was well captured by the then-chancellor’s statement, back in March, that from now on people in Britain would have to ‘count the carbon as well as the pennies’. The sort of change that Brown is most interested in, it seems, is small change.
Brown has been described as a ‘roundhead’ to Blair’s ‘cavalier’ – an insult to Cromwell’s movement, which beheaded the king rather than anointing a monarch. But Brown’s mock-Puritans have no need to ban public merry-making in order to stop people dancing in the streets.
Brown’s use of his old small town school motto, ‘I will try my utmost’, to define the aims of his premiership summed up the parochial, small-minded character of his politics. (If he is so keen on change, why does he keep insisting that he learned everything he knows as a child from his parents and teachers, 40 years ago?) It is enough to make Blair look like a real statesman and dynamic leader by comparison. I am almost missing him already. (Almost, I said.)
This is as good as it is going to get for Brown. He has assumed the crown without facing any serious challenge or question, and with a startling degree of media goodwill. Meanwhile Cameron’s pathetic Conservatives have sunk into crisis to coincide with Brown’s ascension, without his having so much raised his voice, far less his sword, against them.
For those of us who want to bring about some real political change, however, it seems that things can only get worse.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Brendan O’Neill said Gordon Brown’s prime ministership will be a rude awakening and provided 10 reasons outlining why he is not fit to be prime minister. James Woudhuysen dismissed Brown’s attitude on housing as small-scaled and small-minded. Mick Hume unveiled the celeb connection between Gordon Brown and Des Browne. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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