Brown and out in London and Libya
The Libyan debacle has sunk Labour to depths of absurdity and impotence that even some of us Brown-haters find hard to comprehend.
Just when you think that perhaps, finally, it could not get any worse for New Labour, they pull another rabbit suffering from myxomatosis out of the bullet-riddled hat. In the light of the government’s ongoing Libyan debacle, things have now reached the point where maybe we should not really call it a political ‘crisis’. That word implies there is more than one direction in which events could go. But things are only going one way for Gordon Brown and Co.
From long before he became prime minister and presided over the recession, spiked writers always argued that Brown was a spineless individual unfit to lead a scout troop, and that New Labour not only lacked the courage of its convictions, but also any convictions to be courageous about. Unlike the many in the left-liberal media who fell in and out of love like starstruck teenagers, first with Tony Blair and then Brown, we have never had any illusions about New Labour.
Yet the fiasco of the Libyan affair reveals all that is worst about government and politics in the UK today – and shows that it is far worse than even we suspected, taking the idea of a crisis of authority and leadership to depths of absurdity and impotence that even some of us hard-bitten Brown-hating cynics find hard to comprehend.
What was the British government’s attitude to the Scottish Executive’s controversial release of Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing? It did not have one; Brown refused to say anything. Then it did apparently have a view, with Cabinet ministers admitting that the government did not want Megrahi to die in a Scottish jail. Then the government switched to a completely different view, with Ed Balls, Brown’s right-hand man, insisting that they had not supported the release. Then the government appeared to take more than one attitude at once, with foreign secretary David Miliband insisting that Balls did not mean what he was heard to say.
Or what was the New Labour government’s attitude to the families whose loved ones were killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and who are now lobbying for compensation from Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, on the grounds that he armed the IRA? Here Brown for once took an apparently clear view – it would be ‘inappropriate’ for the British government to hassle their new friends in Tripoli on behalf of the families. Then the Sunday papers criticised Brown’s stance and the prime minister quickly did a (figurative) flip-flop, swearing full government support for the families. Then ‘a spokesman’ for the PM came forward to assure the stupid viewers and readers that of course this did not mean there had been any change of policy at all.
Brown appears to be going for the remarkable double act of refusing to take a stand on anything, whilst simultaneously putting his foot in it at every turn – a sure way to end up flat on your face. He has been trying to apply the New Labour way of government-by-headline to the Libyan fallout. But where they might get away without too much harm when staging little media-friendly stunts on, say, law and order or education at home, trying to do the same thing in the big, bad world of international relations is a very dangerous departure that can have real repercussions.
New Labour’s current state looks like a gross caricature of past crises. For example, the release of Megrahi is said to have damaged Britain’s relations with the US as the Suez crisis of 1956 did. Yet Britain’s ill-fated invasion (with France and Israel) of Egypt half a century ago was a response to a real international crisis brought to a head by Egypt’s President Nasser moving to nationalise the Suez Canal. By contrast, the diplomatic damage suffered over Megrahi is entirely self-inflicted, a problem created and then consistently exacerbated by New Labour’s loss of control and authority (see Megrahi and the crisis of political leadership, by Frank Furedi and This was a cock-up, not a conspiracy, by Brendan O’Neill).
Past political scandals have often been brought into the public arena by external exposures of what a government has been up to. In the cartoon Libyan affair, however, ministers have been busily weaving the noose themselves – changing the government’s position and contradicting one another in a way that makes clear they do not really have a clue what has been going on, never mind anybody else ‘exposing’ it.
It has reached the point, as some predicted it would, where Brown is seen as a far worse leader than Blair, whom he replaced with the promise of political renewal. Blair came to be widely despised for his ‘arrogance’ and self-certainty over the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Now he appears like a good strong leader compared to his successor, who is looked upon as a clueless loser.
Yet one difference with past crises such as Suez is that this one is unlikely to prompt the defeated prime minister to resign. This, too, is a sign of New Labour’s desperate weakness rather than strength. Without any collective political mission to hold them together, there is no sense of there being something bigger than personal ambition at stake. Instead of doing what would once have been seen as ‘the decent thing’ for his party, Brown remains prime minister for no better reason than that he is obsessed with being prime minister – and that nobody else in New Labour has the political will to force him out. More than ever before, the Cabinet is a loose collection of individuals concerned only to cover their own backs, and prepared to stick a knife in each other’s where necessary.
Just how bad things have got for the government became clear when the best defence of Brown and criticism of his opponents’ stance on the Libyan affair was offered in a television interview by none other than Colonel Gaddafi’s son. Compared to this smooth media operator, UK home secretary Alan Johnson looked like a schoolboy fool with his absurd claim that the conviction on terror charges of a Muslim from Walthamstow in north-east London, where I live, somehow proved that Britain’s war in Afghanistan was right.
Perhaps the only thing as astounding as Brown’s brainless impression of a working politician, and his faceless colleagues’ inability to organise a coup in a Cabinet room, is the extent to which many of his critics are also wrong about everything, stuck as they are in the politics of the past and failing to see how far things have changed. Thus some accuse New Labour of underhand plots and deals over Libya, missing the point that the crisis was caused precisely by the absence of any purpose or plan in the government’s (in)actions. Others complain that Brown has mysteriously failed to come out and fully explain what his government is doing, yet there is no real mystery: he has said nothing because he has not the first idea what to say or do.
With the Conservatives lacking any leadership qualities of their own and simply waiting for the election to fall into their laps, Brown clings on by the stumps of his close-bitten fingernails. Perhaps that is how it should be for now. After all, our incompetent, incoherent, execrable leader could be seen as a fitting figurehead for the state of politics and government today. He is certainly an apt symbol for Britain’s increasingly obvious lack of clout and influence in the world, illustrated by his extraordinary ability to alienate both the Americans and the Arab world at the same time.
The bigger issues of what British society stands for now, and how we should relate to the world in the future, have been all but ignored in the recent furore over who really said what to whom and when. Brown’s inability to turn foreign policy into a domestic vote winner might illustrate the decline of the traditional politics of British nationalism. There can be no Thatcher-style flag-waving ‘Falklands Factor’ today, and a good thing too. Yet there is a singular absence of political internationalism, too. Thus, as Frank Furedi observed on spiked this week, the growing opposition to Britain’s war in Afghanistan is based not on any principled objection to undemocratic interventions in other peoples’ affairs, but on risk aversion and fear. Is a paranoid, purposeless foreign policy really the only future for our place in the world?
No such questions are even addressed while political life stagnates round the rotting corpse of Brown’s moribund government, which right now could probably lose an election against Colonel Gaddafi’s son.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
Previously on spiked
Brendan O’Neill said the Megrahi affair was a cock-up, not a conspiracy. Mick Hume pointed out that the US-UK ‘special relationship’ has turned into a ‘special needs’ relationship. Frank Furedi argued that the British government’s mismanagement of the al-Megrahi affair showed its lack of political and moral authority. Rob Lyons noted that international politics always trumped the truth over Lockerbie. Brendan O’Neill attacked the political cowardice of Gordon Brown. Frank Furedi described how the political crisis behind the War on Terror and described how Europe’s political elites are lost for words. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.