The rise of Obama and fall of Brown
The Democratic presidential hopeful conquered Europe for the same reason that the New Labour prime minister lost Glasgow East.
The contrast in images could hardly have been starker. On Thursday, while Barack Obama was being feted by an ecstatic German crowd that closed down one of Berlin’s main thoroughfares, Gordon Brown’s fate was being sealed by the grim-faced voters of Glasgow East, otherwise known as the End of the Road.
The Democratic Party hopeful for the US presidency showed that he could win plaudits and apparently overcome anti-Americanism across the oceans. The UK prime minister demonstrated that he could not overcome anti-government feeling to win a parliamentary by-election in one of New Labour’s safest seats in his own Scottish backyard (or back green, as they say in the Glasgow tenements).
While their fortunes are contrasting, the underlying cause of Brown’s fall from grace and Obama’s ascendancy into the heavens is the same. Both are side effects of the prolonged death agonies of the old politics – including its New Labour guise – and the widespread public disaffection and distance from governments of every stripe.
No doubt it is tempting for British and European voters to see Obama’s offer of ‘hope we can believe in’ as a decisive break with the discredited politics of the past. But it is worth remembering how, barely a year ago, many in the self-deluded UK media looked to new prime minister Brown as our saviour. That naivety quickly turned to cynicism as Brown failed to fulfil their fantasies. Now many in Britain and Europe turn their eyes to the dynamic young Obama as the saviour from across the sea – a dream far easier to indulge from afar. This has far more to do with the crisis of politics over here than anything he may have done over there.
The stunning collapse of the Brown government’s authority has brought together many of the trends that have been discussed on spiked in recent times. The crisis of leadership is about far more than Brown’s personal problems. It reflects the wider lack of decisiveness and purpose in a political class that no longer knows what it is for. The emptying out of politics has left behind a New Labour government without principles – and now without even the showbiz appeal of a Tony Blair to hide behind.
The Labour Party’s true status as a political corpse has been laid bare. The loss of Glasgow East to the Scottish National Party confirms that there are no longer any truly safe seats or reliable core votes in the UK. Instead we are entering an era, not of two- or even multi-party politics, so much as no-party politics. As the gap between the public and the political class widens, political loyalties become more arbitrary and uncertain. The Brown camp has attempted outraged dismissals of anybody ‘plotting a coup’ against the prime minister. But that, after all, was how Brown removed Blair in an era of elitist court politics where democracy rarely gets a look in. (It is also worth noting that, while the anti-government mood has boosted the Conservative opposition in the polls, they have little more purchase on the public mood today than New Labour.)
Against this background, Obama has a special appeal to Europeans as an outsider. His rather banal ‘yes we can’ slogans sound deep and meaningful compared to New Labour’s tired managerial gobbledegook. We may not really know who he is or what he stands for, but we know he is not one of Them. Importantly, we also know he is the Not-George-Bush candidate. One young German told the UK media that the Berlin gathering for Obama was ‘an anti-Bush rally’. But it might also be seen as an anti-politics rally of young people who feel no affinity with their own bickering politicians, but can dream of Obama’s declaration: ‘This is the moment we must come together to save the planet.’
Such grand platitudes are, of course, always easier to get away with abroad, away from the tricky detail of domestic policy debates. Tony Blair always understood that, appearing far more comfortable strutting the world stage – and being adored in America – than struggling with the health service or crime at home.
So perhaps it was fitting that Obama should have met with former prime minister Blair, a pioneer of the personal-before-the-political approach, before meeting Prime Minister Brown. There were no big crowds for the president-in-waiting in Britain because, as the BBC reported, the UK leg of his European tour was being kept ‘deliberately low key’. Indeed, as the BBC diplomatic correspondent put it with admirable British understatement, there was a risk that compared to his triumph in Berlin and Paris, Obama’s London stop-over would look ‘decidedly lacklustre’.
No doubt that partly reflects Britain’s real place in the international pecking order these days. But it also says much about the dire, decidedly lacklustre, don’t-know-what-to-do state of British political leadership. On the one hand, New Labour leaders must have been keen to see some of Obama’s glamour rub off on their government. On the other, they would have worried about Brown being overshadowed – and about embarrassing President Bush. So they ended up doing nothing much, and looking even smaller.
Meanwhile, as we predicted when the senator first emerged as a presidential candidate, the desperate search for a ‘British Obama’ to re-energise politics over here is hotting up. The trouble is that comparing him with the next generation of New Labour leaders only confirms them as charmless nerds. And the notion that posh boy David Cameron could have the same popular appeal appears equally fanciful.
In any case, it is worth standing back from all this and asking what the search for a charismatic political messiah really represents. The same media cheerleaders who built up Brown into the answer to all our problems last year are now getting carried away with their adoration of Obama for bringing ‘rock star charisma to electoral politics’, some even predicting that a million Berliners would turn out to hear him. Projecting all of your hopes on to a candidate for president of another country might seem even more of a fairytale approach to politics than investing your hopes for renewal in a New Labour hack who has been chancellor for a decade.
Can we have a proper democratic debate about where politics is heading today? Yes, we can. But not if the most active role anybody can envisage for demos – the people – is as screaming groupies at a rock concert.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Despite claims of Labour revival, Mick Hume argued that you can’t revive a corpse. And after Super Tuesday, he argued that now we know what US voters don’t want. Sean Collins asked who is Barack Obama?. Elsewhere, to mark the beginning of Gordon Brown’s reign, Brendan O’Neill listed 10 reasons why Brown is not fit to be Prime Minister. And David Chandler wondered why does Gordon Brown hate politics?. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and White House 2008.