‘Bottler Brown’ — the PM British politics deserves
Some snap thoughts on the UK election that didn’t snap in the night.
In the parallel universe where British politics appears to take place, there is now a crisis over the cancellation of a General Election that was never called in the first place. If Tony Blair’s New Labour government made itself look ridiculous by postponing the real 2001 election because of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, Gordon Brown’s ‘new’ New Labour looks far worse for postponing a fantasy poll due to an outbreak of loss of nerve.
Yet behind the ‘Brown bottles it’ headlines, the widespread expressions of surprise and outrage at his decision not to go for an autumn election seem a bit naive. Nobody should be shocked to discover that Brown and New Labour are not up for a fight (or be fooled by the Conservatives’ displays of empty bravado, either). The election-that-never-was fiasco fits into the pattern of unprincipled manoeuvring, indecisive leadership and mistrust of the public that characterises contemporary British politics.
A few snap points about the snap election that didn’t happen:
- ‘Bottler’ Brown is a fitting leader for a government and political class suffering an acute loss of nerve.
Many in the media who have helped to build up Brown’s image as a strong leader now feel badly let down after only a few months – rather quicker than it took to burst the Blair bubble. But a glance at Brown’s record suggests a long history of dodging fights.
spiked writers have often pointed out over the past decade how Brown tends to go missing at important moments. As Brendan O’Neill noted on 26 June this year, as Brown prepared to take over as prime minister, ‘Leaders need balls, daring, a willingness to take risks and deal with the consequences. Brown has none of these things. Over the past 10 years, he hid in Blair’s shadows, even as he became increasingly enraged by Blair’s unwillingness to hand over the prime-ministership. As Tom Bower says in his authoritative biography of Brown: “[There is] one critical and unresolvable conundrum, namely Brown’s lack of courage. At decisive moments throughout his career he has proved notoriously unable to brutally assert his own interests.”’ (See 10 reasons why Gordon Brown is not fit to be prime minister, by Brendan O’Neill.)
Brown stood aside from leadership contests in both 1992 and 1994 (when he did the infamous Granita deal with Blair). As chancellor of the exchequer from 1997 until earlier this year, he pursued an aggressive campaign of empire-building behind the doors of the Treasury, but publicly proved far less willing to stand and fight. During the key debates over the invasion of Iraq, he simply went missing in action. When Labour MPs’ opposition to the government’s education reforms was at its peak, Brown used it to stir ill-feeling towards Blair behind the scenes, but played truant from the public debates. Even when chancellor Brown was directly in the firing line, over the mess made by his flagship family credits policy, Blair had to stand up in parliament and effectively apologise on his behalf, like the parent of a sullen but scared adolescent.
Brown hid behind Blair during those years, and in a different way he is still doing so now. His suggestion that he needs more time to push through his doctrine of ‘change’ implies that he cannot hold an election because he is too busy clearing up the mess that Blair made; the small matter of Brown’s role as author of many of the Blair government’s policies becomes just another ducked issue. That the prime minister could be scared away from an election by talk of a weak Tory revival speaks volumes for his supposed fortitude in the face of adversity.
Yet Brown’s tendency to bottle it is not merely a personal trait. He personifies well the state of mind of an entire British political class that has suffered a crippling loss of nerve. Which is why he is the leader that they deserve.
The demise of the political traditions of left and right and the descent into uncertainty has left all of the political parties unsure of what they should stand for, lacking firm ground on which they can stand and fight. Thus ours is an era of few bold decisions. The tendency is always towards risk-averse managerial government and getting others to assume authority on the politicians’ behalf, whether that might be the Bank of England, the judges, or some panel of experts. In this sense, Brown the reluctant candidate is a man of his time, a prime minister for a nation that has lost its nerve.
- Brown is like Blair after all – only worse
Everybody can see that this is an entirely self-inflicted wound. It is a result of spin and attempts at media management dominating over proper political debate.
Brown had no need at all to build up expectations of holding an election two years early. Yet the prime minister and his close allies teased his newfound admirers in the media with clear hints that he was going boldly to the polls. It was they who turned the discussion into one about when the election would be, rather than the substance of what such a contest should be about. Then he suddenly took fright, not because of anything that happened in the real world, but because of a few opinion polls and the media reaction to them.
Trying to spin everything, yet being spun himself by the latest batch of headlines and poll projections – sound familiar? Brown turns out to be not very different from Blair after all. Except that Brown the new boy already looks more like the late, accident-prone version of his predecessor. In his pomp, Blair was a consummate politician and, whatever one thinks of him, the nearest thing to a leader in British politics. The media Brown-nosing of the new prime minister in recent months might have created the illusion that Brown is ‘the big prime minister we have been waiting for’. Now we have a glimpse of the true standing of Brown and the New Labour political pygmies, long hidden from view by the powerful glare of Blair’s media image.
- Brown is right to bottle it – or at least, to fear the future
Brown has humiliated himself by backing away from an election and ceding the high ground to David Cameron’s floundering Conservatives. But in one sense he has made the right decision. Brown’s underlying lack of confidence is well founded. He has implicitly admitted that he does not trust himself to win an argument with the electorate today. And why should anybody think he could?
After all, the image he projected at the Labour Party conference, where he posed as the bank manager father of the nation and did not even mention the opposition parties, was an attempt to rise above the very idea of party political debate (see Election: the question is not when, but why and what?, by Mick Hume). Now that it becomes evident that the self-appointed Emperor has got no clothes, Brown would be forced to go naked to the polls – not an attractive prospect.
It all confirms how low politics has sunk in the UK. Political leaders like Brown sit with their armies of advisers studying media comment and poll data to see if they can win. The state of public opinion is seen as something given, beyond their grasp. They are essentially passive players, almost spectators. There is little or no sense that they could intervene to change the situation by going out and campaigning for their politics. And given their parties’ absence of any distinctive, firm principles or clear visions of the future, that is understandable.
In ancient societies, leaders would study the entrails of birds and animals to see what destiny the gods and fates had in store for them. Now they study the entrails of editorials and opinion polls, but the sense of doomed foreboding, of the future being determined for them, looks much the same.
So Brown is right to fear what might happen to him in an election, and to doubt his own ability to shape the result. Yet having set up the prospect of an election, he may well yet come to regret calling it off in fright. As I wrote here on 1 August, at the height of the media’s early Brown-mania, ‘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.’ (See What’s behind all this Brown-nosing?, by Mick Hume.) The very act of retreat has ensured that comes true sooner than expected.
It is hard for the rest of us to know whether to be relieved that we are to be spared the circus of an empty autumn election, or downcast at the prospect of the permanent election campaign that seems about to take off. Either way, we are faced with a situation where politics is so shallow and arbitrary that the sense of crisis can switch from government to opposition and back on an almost weekly basis, and where public cynicism about the lot of them is the only thing likely to remain consistently strong in the opinion polls.
Democratic choice needs to mean more than whether Brown goes to see the Queen now or in 2009.
Brendan O’Neill listed 10 reasons why Gordon Brown is unfit to be prime minister. Mick Hume wondered how Brown’s small tax cut could be described as ‘dramatic’ and wondered, if it were called, what an election would be about anyway. David Chandler wondered why Gordon Brown hates politics. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.