‘Lettergate’ reveals the illiteracy of British politics

The bizarre controversy over Gordon Brown’s letter to a grieving mum shows that we urgently need to improve and deepen political debate.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

The controversy over Gordon Brown’s badly written, misspelled letter to the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan might just be the perfect metaphor for the dumbed-down nature of contemporary British politics.

A prime minister is being judged, not for what he has done and instituted in public, but for something he said in private. He’s being slammed by the tabloid newspaper the Sun, and others, not for his ideas or even for the words he speaks, but for the style in which he writes words down, the way in which he spells them.

And on the flipside, he is being defended – by his Labour colleagues and by liberal broadsheet journalists – not on the basis of what he stands for or believes in, but in terms of victim politics (he’s visually impaired so we shouldn’t attack his writing style) or just outright conspiracism (the Sun is sinisterly recruiting bereaved mothers to topple the government on Rupert Murdoch’s behalf).

With a PM being either attacked over one hurriedly written letter or defended as a victim of circumstance and conspiracy, we can glimpse the illiteracy of mainstream British politics today. Never mind the content or the wording of the letter Brown wrote, it’s the political scene that is sorely lacking in substance and increasingly lost for words.

Brown, like most modern-day PMs before him, sends a handwritten letter to the families of soldiers who die overseas. His letter to Jacqui Janes, whose son Jamie was killed in Helmand in October, contained various spelling mistakes. Mrs Janes sent the letter to the Sun and later recorded a telephone conversation with Brown – in which he ermed and ahhed as she accused him of contributing to her son’s death by failing to provide sufficient equipment in Afghanistan – and she sent that to the Sun, too. The Sun has spearheaded a ‘respect Our Boys’ campaign, while on the BBC’s, the Guardian’s and even the Sun’s own online discussion boards there has been a reaction against what Peter Mandelson this morning described as the Sun’s ‘mixture of bad taste and crude politicking’ (1).

It is certainly ridiculous, but indicative of today’s shallow political culture, to take a prime minister to task over a private letter. Instead of holding Brown to account for the illiberal, miserabilist, vision-free things he has done in public over the past 12 years – both as a penny-pinching chancellor of the exchequer and as a boneheaded prime minister – we are expected to judge him on the basis of something that was intended as an entirely private correspondence.

In place of a serious and much-needed debate about the war in Afghanistan – its purpose, its direction, its impact on regional and global stability – we are given a shouting match between one grieving mother (backed by the Sun) and one beleaguered prime minister (backed by the more serious media). In this sense, ‘Lettergate’ shines a light on the denigration of public debate and the collapse of the clash of ideas that has taken place over the past 15 years. Ours is an era of the politics of personality rather than the politics of principle, where how a politician behaves or speaks or what he spends his money on is considered more important than what he believes in and what vision (or lack of vision) he has for society – to such an extent that even a key public issue such as the war in Afghanistan can be reduced to an interpersonal spat over a private letter, to the style of words Brown wrote in private rather than the words and ideas he has used in public to justify an increasingly pointless war.

‘Lettergate’ reveals, more than anything, the narrowing of the public, political sphere and its replacement by a myopic obsession with politicians’ appearance, with how they act, speak, express emotions. However, Mrs Janes is not to blame for this state of affairs. Nor is the Sun. Indeed, for all the snide remarks now being made about Mrs Janes – whom, the broadsheets imply, is a rather stupid woman who has been bought and sold by the evil Sun – we should remember that grieving military families have been pushed to the forefront of the debate about Iraq and Afghanistan over the past five years, and frequently by the kind of liberal campaigners who now slate the Sun.

In recent years, military families have sued the government for their sons’ and daughters’ deaths overseas, written letters to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown accusing them of ‘ruining people’s lives by the decisions you make’ (2), stood in General Elections, been featured in trendy anti-war documentaries such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and have been interviewed on the front pages of the broadsheets. All of this has given rise to a situation where military families, in the words of one overjoyed liberal commentator in 2004, have become ‘a significant political force on both sides of the Atlantic’ (3).

The politicisation of military family grief has been a product of two things: deep divisions within British society over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the cynical promotion of grief as a powerful weapon by anti-war campaigners and commentators. Unable to make sense of their sons’ and daughters’ deaths overseas, denied victory parades or even a clear, convincing justification for the wars and their families’ losses in them, military families have become more likely to ‘break ranks’ and publicly upbraid New Labour leaders. And they have been egged on by liberal campaigners.

Indeed, it is striking that, where a Guardian journalist yesterday accused the Sun of ‘pure cynicism’ in its exploitation of military family grief to try to ‘topple Brown’, no one batted an eyelid when, in 2004, Naomi Klein wrote an article in the Guardian titled ‘The grieving parents who might yet bring Bush down’, in which she described a mother’s grief as ‘the mother of all anti-war forces’ which, best of all, was unquestionable and unchallengeable: ‘No one questions the wildness in the eyes of a mother or father who has just lost a son or daughter….’ (4) So it’s okay to exploit grieving parents to topple Bush but not Brown? It’s all right to cheer public grief if it is for anti-war purposes, but not if it is done in the name of securing more equipment for soldiers? In fact, both of these uses of grief look like ‘pure cynicism’ to me, an attempt to get desperately sad parents to do the dirty work of what ought to be upfront, honest and political campaigns. If the Sun really is cynically exploiting a mother’s implacable grief for ‘crude politicking’, it is not the first media outlet to do such a thing, and it is not the only institution elevating politicians’ private behaviour over public argument.

The way in which Brown is being defended is telling, too. The forces rallying around him are pointedly not arguing that Brown is doing the right thing on Afghanistan, or that he has any vision for Britain; rather they are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him on the basis that he is, in the words of one commentator, a VIP: a visually impaired person. We shouldn’t criticise his letter-writing because he can’t see very well (5). Or they argue that Brown has been duped by a tabloid newspaper that is promoting ‘unrelenting hostility’ towards the New Labour government and trying to ‘humble a prime minister that is clinging to power’ (6). Some hint that Murdoch himself wants Brown out and so he has let the Sun, his No.1 attack dog, loose on him.

This is pure conspiracism. Leaving aside the fact that the Sun and every other major British newspaper was stultifyingly pro-Labour from around 1997 to 2005/2006 – and nobody complained about the denigration of debate which such conformism gave rise to – we should remember that Brown is, firstly, an adult, and secondly the prime minister of the United Kingdom! If such a person, surrounded by advisers, and supposedly leading the country, is duped by a newspaper and a mum, then he has no one to blame but himself. Labour supporters are effectively trying to institute a Victim Protection Programme for Brown, to surround him with a PC forcefield that depicts criticism or media attacks as a slur on his disabilities or as ‘pure cynicism’. Utterly isolated, devoid of vision and heading for defeat, Brown, it seems, can only be defended these days as the poor kid in the playground being bullied by Murdoch and his cronies.

‘Lettergate’ has provided a worrying snapshot of the state of political debate. With a General Election around the corner, it is time to up the stakes. Don’t back the Sun, don’t rally around Brown – Vote for Politics instead.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill described the war in Afghanistan as a war for the soul of New Labour. Mick Hume asked why it took eight years to ask questions of the war in Afghanistan. Tim Black criticised the defeatism of the anti-war movement. Elsewhere, Mick Hume couldn’t believe how low New Labour had sunk during the Megrahi/Libya affair, and, before that, looked at the lingering death of New Labour. And Brendan O’Neill called Gordon Brown the hangdog dictator of Downing Street. Or read more at spiked issues Afghanistan orBritish politics.

(1) Mandelson blasts Sun’s bad taste, London Evening Standard, 11 November 2009

(2) Letter to Tony Blair by Maxine Gentle, Military Families Against the War, 18 August 2004

(3) When soldiers die in dubious battle, Scotsman, 21 August 2004

(4) The grieving parents who might yet bring Bush down, Guardian, 10 July 2004

(5) It’s not Gordon Brown’s spelling, it’s his sight, Guardian,9 November 2009

(6) The Sun declares war on the prime minister, Greenslade Blog, 10 November 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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