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North Briton – Scottish Review of Books
by Ian Bell

North Briton

October 29, 2009 | by Ian Bell

IN POLITICS, AS in real life, timing is everything. It would be overstating the case somewhat to claim that the world has been holding its breath for the publication of another bunch of mostly-routine speeches. Somewhere there is wet paint to watch, and an outside chance that hell might freeze over. When the author happens to be Gordon Brown, however, the context for such a volume becomes self-evident. Speeches 1997-2006 is offered as a credo, of sorts.

Short of a sensation, this is our next prime minister, after all. For the best part of a decade he has exercised unchallenged control over the British economy, and influenced swathes of government beyond the Treasury which are, strictly speaking, none of his business. Irrespective of New Labour tantrums, gossiping, and back-stabbing, Brown has functioned as one half of an effective dual premiership for a very long time. So what do we know about him Precious little, as it happens. Given the limited degrees of separation in Scottish life, I could probably call the chancellor a distant friend of friends, but that wouldn’t help much. Others have known him far better, over the years, yet even they seem to struggle to capture the essence, if any, of Brown’s character. He has been a force in Scottish politics for most of his adult life, but there is the distinct impression that very few people know the man well.

He works ferociously hard, and always has. The ethic – what he would call his moral compass – is thoroughly Presbyterian. He is proud of his parents, and the virtues of the manse. He is, or appears to be, tribally Labour, in sharp contrast to “the bloke next door”. To his credit, he is a bibliophile. The tragedy of a lost child aside, he keeps his private life to himself, confessing only that family has been his joy after some long, apparently lonely, years. They say he likes a joke and Raith Rovers – there may be a connection – but synthetic intimacy with the great British public is not his strong suit. You can be fairly certain that he does not give a monkeys, and never did, for the Arctic Monkeys.

A book such as this should amount to a political autobiography, of sorts, but the man behind the words is stubbornly elusive. For one thing, we are given only part of a life. These are public utterances from the years of power, as though all preceding opinions have been deemed irrelevant. The Gordon Brown of socialist memory is excluded, perhaps because the author of Maxton, The Politics Of Nationalism And Devolution, or Where There Is Greed, that passionate evisceration of Thatcherism, is no longer congenial to the chancellor, perhaps because New Labour is a project that depends on the airbrush.

Brown’s fans, and there are many of them, would probably argue that certain themes persist. Everyone from Mandela to J.K. Rowling is enlisted here to prove that this statesman has never flinched in his efforts to secure justice for the Third World, to end child poverty, to save the environment or secure the public realm. If this is Brown’s manifesto for leadership, its sub-title could be a single word, “Substance”. Brown does not do froth. He does politics as a morality play, and does so – his admirers would say – consistently.

Still, a sceptic – always glad to do my bit – is entitled to wonder about that. Brown is never slow to boast of his efforts to lift children from poverty, for example. Glossing one speech, his friend and editor Wilf Stevenson writes that “Anyone who knows Gordon Brown well, or who came across him in his early days, knows of his deep-seated commitment to root out poverty and in particular to ensure that all our children are given the best chance of developing their potential”.

True enough: tax credits and the like have made a measurable difference to many young lives. But which politician admits to being in favour of poverty? Which politician, in particular, has presided for a decade over widening income inequalities in British life – greater now than any even the Tories allowed – refused to use the taxation system to address the scandal, and treated the word “redistribution” like a social disease?

There are deep contradictions to this Gor-don Brown, in other words, that a judicious selection of his speeches seeks to disguise. Here, for example, we have 32 pages on ‘Delivering Local Public Services’, complete with a fan letter from Sir Jonathan Sacks. Within that span there is a single mention of public-private partnerships – “We do best when public and private sectors work together to enhance investment in our transport and infrastructure” – but no hint of a philosophical argument. What remains of a public service when it is reduced to a mortgage dumped on future generations? The accumulated cost will one day be catastrophic. Discuss? Not a chance.

The best you can glean from a long book is that Brown has no taste for the old “public-private split”. What he means, beyond public subsidy to private concerns, is very far from clear, yet this is a man with every intention of running the country. We are entitled, I think, to know a little more.

Health professionals in England and Wales – devolved Scotland is a somewhat different case – believe increasingly that the NHS is being Balkanised and privatised. Brown, beyond question, has devoted vast resources to the service. He has rejected charges, private insurance schemes, and the delusion that health care can be treated “like a normal market”. Yet he invites the privatised cuckoo into the nest and regurgitates the gibberish of “choice”. Ideologically, he is incoherent.

One amusement to be had from this extended job application lies in its index. “Blair, Tony” receives ten mentions; Beveridge and Bevan receive more attention. The prime minister appears as a distant, marginal figure, always with his full name, never as “Tony”, certainly not as “my friend/ colleague/ leader Tony”. Generations yet to come might well be left with some confused ideas over who was actually running the country as the twentieth century slouched to its close and a new (ish) era began.

We knew this, of course. It has been Brown’s political tragedy to allow himself, and therefore his career, to be defined by the truth every voter in the land holds to be self-evident: he and Blair despise one another. Their loathing is mutual, deep, and born of the conviction that each is wedded to betrayal. Right?

Possibly so. We have good reason, certainly, to believe it. The story has been the fuel of Westminster journalism for years, as enduring as any soap opera. In one sense, the near-absence of Blair from Brown’s big book amounts to proof in its own right. That, though, is almost beside the point. Is the chancellor’s political evolution remotely explicable without an account – one would have done – of the figure who was once his closest ally and, supposedly, good friend? Do the new Labour years make sense if you subtract Blair from Brown?

That would appear to be the latter’s unspoken belief, yet it is nonsensical. Brown has followed his convictions, for better or worse, while Blair has seized his opportunities. The fact remains that they created New Labour together. The second pertinent fact, for these purposes, is that the dismantling of Gordon Brown began when he found a fellow spirit, or so he thought, in a grinning Old Fettesian. We cannot truly understand our next prime minister until he is prepared to discuss that relationship.

Instead, we must settle for decent sentiments regarding the plight of Africa (always overlooking the difference between words and deeds). We must accept that Prime Minister Brown will never become a prose stylist, and that he is suited to metaphorical hair shirts. We must give thanks for the fact that our chancellor remains a historian at heart, even if that makes his stance towards the Iraq war – two mentions only – all the more inexplicable. As a guide to his interests, these speeches are useful, but they are not revealing.

There is one exception. It relates – and this is no accident – to Brown’s recent attempts to reinvent his image, to make himself fit for purpose as his chum (that’s a joke) John Reid might say. In that early biography of James Maxton the chancellor set out his stall with regard to nationalism and Scotland. He was one of those, after all, who saw the point of devolution at an early stage, without once faltering in his devotion to three centuries of Union. Here’s a bet, nevertheless: no one ever predicted that the motive force behind The Red Book On Scotland would one day devote a chapter to ‘Britishness’.

Call me partisan, but I winced. Britain is not necessarily a disreputable concept, if that’s your taste. Admiring Gazza’s goal against Scotland is no crime. Admiring one variety of nationalism while deploring another is something of a stretch, in this writer’s mind, but the contradiction is not Brown’s alone. What jars is the spectacle of a clever man succumbing to self-defeating behaviour. Each time he insists on his devotion to Britain and her principles he simply reminds English voters of how very Scottish he is. Unwise, surely?

He can claim to have pursued the theme for many years, but it still feels like a recent development. He can insist that he is, comfortably, both Scottish and British, but on this side of the border he sounds as though he is apologising for the former while making expedient claims on the latter. In short, Brown on Britishness sounds a little desperate. When identity comes easily, there is no call to go on about the fact.

Instead, the chancellor invoking “a British genius” can sound like Churchill in one of his purple patches. The qualities of Britishness? Being “creative, adaptable and outward-looking, believing in liberty, duty and fair play”, not retreating “into a narrow insularity and defensive isolationism”. So much for the Americans, then, for whom such concepts are surely novelties. So much for the French, the Irish, or the Dutch. So much for the Scots? Brown is careful to mention the tribe, but only in passing.

Blair is what he is, more’s the pity. In these speeches – don’t forget to mention the environment, Gordon – our next prime minister sounds like a man attempting feverishly to assemble a persona. The result is the opposite of what is so obviously desired. Needless to say, this is not a good look for a statesman in waiting. Nor does it bode well for the Brown era, short or long.

“So Britain is becoming a country where we can talk of Scotland leading Britain ”, he says (page 366). At a guess, he would make a start with a Scotsman leading Britain . But not a Scotsman leading Scotland , obviously.

SPEECHES 1997-2006
Gordon Brown
Bloomsbury, £30.00
pp480 ISBN 0747588376

From this Issue

North Briton

by Ian Bell

Behind Wicket Gate

by Ronald Frame

Anyone Seen Rilke?

by Michael Schmidt

A Tale of Two Books

by Iain MacWhirter

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