On the third of May, the final Monday before voters cast their ballots in The Race To Run Knifecrime Island, Gordon Brown delivered a speech at London’s Methodist Central Hall on the values and beliefs which he and his Labour Party had fought for throughout his life, particularly during his time in office. It was a passionate appeal for fairness and social justice that was roundly regarded as the greatest speech of Gordon Brown’s career. The only problem was that it was a speech by Gordon Brown.
I was thinking on Friday, after the results of the election indicated a hung parliament that would probably result in a Conservative prime minister, about the election of 1997, when Tony Blair’s New Labour swept out the Conservatives after 18 years in power. It is difficult now to recall the wave of hope and enthusiasm Britain felt in those first few weeks after that vote, but the seeming end of that era (whether or not Brown’s decision to resign will result in a Labour/Lib Dem coalition, things will be so completely different that it is safe to say we can draw a line under the project) made one ever so briefly feel pity for the Prime Minister.
After the premature death of Labour leader John Smith in 1994, Brown, then the number two figure in the Opposition, seemingly had a claim on the top slot. When it became clear that Tony Blair was the more popular choice of both the party and the nation, Brown stepped aside, with rumors of a deal that Blair would lead for a certain amount of time before he, in turn, stepped aside for Brown. And thus began “New Labour,” the history of which will inexorably link the two forever.
That history will show almost immediate and unceasing conflict and maneuvering between both men. Blair’s people allegedly put it out that Brown was “psychologically flawed,” Brown’s people allegedly cut off Blair’s balls by putting it out that Britain would not join the Euro without consulting Blair; for the ten years Blair spent as Prime Minister the hostility between the two alternated between frenzied briefing and low-level animosity.
And yet imagine things had gone the other way around. Just as it is hard to remember how much enthusiasm there was at the dawn of New Labour, it is also difficult to remember how incredibly well-suited Blair was for the time. Energetic, young, full of hope and gesture, Blair exemplified everything the press and the nation wanted to believe about “Cool Britannia.” Would the dour Brown have had the same “good Diana” that Blair experienced after the funeral of the Princess of Wales? Would Conservative leader William Hague have been quite as much a figure of ridicule for wearing a baseball cap at the Notting Hill Carnival if the awkward Brown were his opposite number? It is of course impossible to say, but the gleam, however artificial, coming off of Blair draped his party in so much goodwill that he was able to see off four different opposition leaders, winning even when it became clear that his fondness for rich people and willingness to eat whatever George Bush served were not exceptions to the rule but rather keys to the man’s character.
None of this is meant to exculpate Brown, who was a terrible politician. He was fortunate to serve as Chancellor during the good times-although his claims to have ended “boom and bust” illustrated the kind of hubris that only someone unfamiliar with Greek mythology or deeply convinced of his own brilliance would choose to make-and did, in fact, make some decent decisions (one can, of course, argue over his fondness for private finance initiatives). And watch that speech again; however poorly he expresses it, and notwithstanding the compromises anyone must make when they reach high office, it is fairly clear that this is a man who does believe in fairness, in social justice.
It is a pity then, about the rest of it: The paranoia, the bullying, the string of unfortunate incidents that-while not necessarily his fault-helped add weight to the idea of the government as tired and incompetent, even the decision not to go for an early election shortly after he achieved the office he had so long sought (a major miscalculation born of both indecision and overthinking); these are all the hallmarks of a person who should not be in politics, at least the way we play the game now.
This is obviously a series of observations from someone who has a remarkable amount of distance (and its accompanying ignorance) from the observed subject: I don’t live in Britain, I have not been to that island since Thatcher herself was in power, I know mainly what I see in the news or read in the papers. But the way democracy works these days in developed nations, is, I think, fairly universal. Paranoia and bullying and the undermining of your enemies will get you a long way, but unless you have the kind of internal calm that allows you to weather both the storms of criticism and the showers of praise with the same amount of equanimity you will never be fully successful. For all his arrogance and certitude, you never had the sense that Brown was really comfortable enough to handle either of those eventualities. He lacked that vital temperament. It is perhaps unfair, and it perhaps puts us at a disadvantage when those tasked with making the important decisions aren’t necessarily the smartest or the most sincere, but this is the world in which we live. The tragedy of Gordon Brown, then, is not that he was Prime Minister at the wrong time. The tragedy of Gordon Brown is that there was never right time for him to be Prime Minister.