What’s behind all this Brown-nosing?
Praise for Britain’s new PM as he returns from his trip to the US is an exercise in fantasy politics.
Have things really come to this? Have political expectations sunk so low that intelligent observers are prepared to hail a British prime minister of a few weeks as a bold, dynamic leader, simply because he is Not Tony Blair?
The remarkable and faintly nauseating British media love-in with Gordon Brown continues. As the New Labour leader flew to meet President George W Bush, the national display of Brown-nosing went transatlantic. Brown was praised for skilfully ‘walking the tightrope’, especially over Iraq, by not embracing Bush. Meanwhile at home, Brown was being hailed for his strong, calm leadership during what one pundit called ‘trials by fire and water’ – the attempted car bombings and the floods.
Whether in Britain or abroad, the message has been that the man we all thought of as boring old Brown is really a dynamic breath of fresh air, even a wind of change compared to the staleness of the late Blair years.
This is the time of the year when sporting anoraks start picking players to make up their imaginary teams for the game of fantasy football. In similar spirit, the Brown-nosing media commentators are playing fantasy politics.
Their new view of Brown is based on little more than wishful thinking. They are loading their own delusions and self-indulgent dreams of both revitalised domestic politics and Britain’s virtuous role in the world on to a prime minister who has actually done very little since entering 10 Downing Street. Indeed, it is because Brown has said and done so little of substance that he presents such a useful blank screen on which they can project their own thoughts and fantasies.
Look a little closer, and what all the overexcited observers are really saying is ‘Gordon Brown is not Tony Blair!’. This hardly seems like news to anybody who has been awake for the past decade. Yet, such is the sense of bitterness and disillusionment now felt by those who invested all of their hopes in Blair’s New Labour back in 1997 that even professional cynics seem prepared to suspend their disbelief and pick Brown as their fantasy prime minister.
This became clearer than ever in the run-up to the Washington trip. As I noted in The Times (London) earlier this week, many even seem to have fantasised that Brown is really Hugh Grant – or at least, the fictional PM portrayed by Grant in the execrable movie Love, Actually, who tells off a US president in a press conference for ‘bullying’ poor but proud little Britain (see The phantom occupation of Iraq, by Brendan O’Neill).
The lack of any substantial change in policy should hardly have come as a surprise to seasoned observers. Brown has very little room to manoeuvre in foreign policy, where what remains of Britain’s standing as a power in the world depends on the alliance with America. No doubt Brown wants to keep Bush at arm’s length and hopes for a more compatible successor in the White House. But a serious break with America was always out of the question for a prime minister who is at least as keen as Blair to use the world stage to give his government the appearance of purpose – as the launch of global gestures such as the new UN intervention in Darfur shows.
Yet such is the extent of self-delusion among the ‘Hugh Brown’ groupies that they sought to convince themselves the PM somehow really had stood up to the president. There was endless talk of Brown’s stiff body language and formal language (that is, no Blair-style camaraderie), his suit (no Blair-style chinos), the absence of his spouse (no Blair-style first lady photo-shoots), as if in our era of image and personality-led politics, these things really do matter more than actual policy.
And many bitter media critics of what is now called the ‘Bush-Blair’ Iraq War (never mind that Brown supported it throughout) have had nothing but praise for Brown’s role in the new Darfur initiative, seemingly blind to the fact that it springs from precisely the same interventionist ‘ethical’ foreign policy as the Iraq invasion – and, as discussed elsewhere on spiked, could potentially have just as disastrous consequences for those on the receiving end (see Intellectual imperialism by Philip Cunliffe, and Darfur: damned by pity by Brendan O’Neill).
Back home, too, Brown’s failure radically to alter any of the key New Labour policies on health, education, crime and so on should hardly have come as a shock given that, as the most powerful chancellor of the exchequer in memory, he had spent the past decade formulating and enforcing them. Those changes he has announced generally come under the category of what an infamous leaked Blair memo once described as ‘eye-catching initiatives’ – in other words, headline-grabbing stunts. If Blair had tried to pass them off as major steps down a new political path, the media would have scoffed. Yet when Brown does the same, with a little less showbiz, most seem prepared to swallow it.
And what exactly are these ‘trials of fire and water’ through which Brown has supposedly led the country? A pathetic little failed terror campaign and a month of wet weather have been talked about in some places as if they amounted to a world war, just so that Brown can be cast in the role of Churchillian leader. Brown’s use of the floods as a backdrop for appearing concerned-yet-resolute was no less a staged job than Tory leader David Cameron’s widely-mocked visit to Rwanda at the same time. But you would never guess that from the contrasting tone of the coverage.
In the media-shaped world of public life today, we are left with a view of the new New Labour government that reflects both a deep cynicism about politics and a naive fantasy about Brown. Much of the media now seems to be acting as a sort of cross between a bitter old geezer and a schoolgirl with a crush – a particularly unattractive combination.
The loud praising of Brown as the Neither-Blair-Nor-Cameron candidate has certainly done him some good in the polls, where New Labour has once more pulled ahead of the desperate, panicking Conservative Party. Despite Brown’s role at the heart of government for 10 years, the almost-universal depiction of a new, young, change-oriented regime has managed to offset the anti-incumbency factor in politics for now (something similar can be observed in the early response to the Sarkozy presidency in France).
However, Brown might be well-advised to take the advice of his more excitable cheerleaders and call an early election (although his cautious record suggests he won’t risk it), because it is unlikely to get much better than this for him. Even with the much heralded ‘bounce’ since Brown took over, New Labour is only up to 39 per cent in the latest polls. His bounce of around six percentage points is about half what the grey man John Major enjoyed when he took over as prime minister from Margaret Thatcher in mid-government.
Brown’s success so far has been as much a triumph of image over substance as was Blair’s heyday. The difference is that the image this time is that of a bank manager with a safe pair of hands rather than a showman with magic tricks up his sleeve. Brown’s image has been enough to stop the flimsy Cameron bandwagon and entrance the media. But it is no more likely to galvanise a genuine movement of political support and loyalty in society – or to provide protection against what one Tory PM called ‘events, dear boy, events’ in the real world of social and economic problems outside Westminster.
For those who want to see some real political debate and change, however, the immediate prospects seem worse. There is no argument about big issues in British politics today, no serious debate between competing visions of the future of society, nothing to raise public aspirations and horizons. Political contests are reduced to the circus level of the coming mayoral election between Ken Livingstone, the Miserabilist of London, and Boris Johnson, the Conservative clown prince.
The Brown-nosing cannot end soon enough. The trouble is that, when emotions have taken over from analysis in so much media discussion, the eventual pricking of the hyped-up Brown bubble is likely to mean an instant reversion to deep cynicism about all things political. That is no better. What is needed instead is some proper critical questioning now of what Brown is doing, and why the reactions to it have been so distorted.
Yes, we get it, we know he is Not Tony Blair. But that is Not Good Enough.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
David Chandler suggested foreign policy under Brown would be a desperate search for purpose in the international arena. Mick Hume wrote the world is just a stage for PR conscious politicians while noting that the mid-term elections showed America’s political class is completely adrift. Brendan O’Neill ridiculed Brown’s expulsion of Russian diplomats as nostalgia for the Cold War. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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