The Man Who Saved the World: The Many Faces of Gordon Brown
Open Democracy. February 15th 2010
All week the British media have trailed two domestic political stories – one about the unravelling of the Cameroon Conservative project, and the other about Gordon Brown’s interview with Piers Morgan (1).
The Brown interview marks many claim a new phase in ‘the Broon project’: one his backroom staff have often been working on day and night with no visible result – namely the humanising of the coarse, dull, workaholic ‘Broonman’. The other angle is of the slow corroding of our politics and politicians by a culture demanding and expecting emoting, charismatic, actor-shaped politicians. Almost as if people having had a glimpse of Blair doing it – despite everything – can’t stop themselves wanting more.
The constant with Brown in his entire public life has been his ability to morph, adapt and change to suit his environment (2). There have been at least five faces of Brown in his career and each has appeared as authentic and manufactured as the other. Each has seen Brown from early to recent times go with the grain of existing trends, rather than strike out on and make new ground himself. Brown in this has always been cautious and conservative in character and ideas. And when some observers ask, ‘will the real Gordon Brown please stand up?’, this is a question which cannot be answered.
Put it this way, the actor Cary Grant has been claimed in recent years as both a gay man and a bisexual, but he also had five wives. The question, ‘who is the real Cary Grant?’ is therefore a question which could have many different answers. They were all equally valid and maybe in his heart Grant did or did not know the answer. This takes us to the nature of ‘the self’ and I imagine the same is true of Gordon Brown’s voyage.
The five phases of Gordon Brown are:
‘Red Brown’ of the mid-1970s. This was never really as radical a character as others have claimed – Tom Bower and Paul Routledge being the worst offenders for very different motivations (3). Brown was more like a ‘Citizen Smith’ figure of the BBC TV series of the day, mouthing various left clichés and platitudes of the period. If this seems a little hard, it is revealing that no radical hostages to fortune have come back to haunt him from this period.
‘Red Rose Brown’ or ‘Supply Side Socialism Man’. This has the young, eager Brown on his way up in the Labour modernisation project of Neil Kinnock in the 1980s. It was also a period where Brown forged his close political relationship and friendship with Tony Blair, to the extent that both men as public figures are actually in part a creation of the other.
Then came ‘New Labour Brown’. This can be seen as an extension of the last phase in one view and in another as either a complete break, departure or at its most extreme, as a coup d’etat within the party. Whichever version you buy into about New Labour, Brown was at the heart of it, and it combined three election victories, with the hollowing out of the party, and the trashing of much of what Labour had historically stood for – from public services to the ideal of public service and a fixation on Atlanticism unseen in British politics.
‘Union Jack Brown’ ran simultaneously with part of the above phase – once Labour were in power – as Brown attempted to weave a new social contract of Britishness for these isles. This wasn’t just about the UK post-devolution, or Brown becoming PM as a Scottish MP, but his constant search for a moral mission and purpose.
Finally has come ‘The man who saved the world’ period. In this as the world economic system crashed around our heads like something from a 1960s James Bond film, Gordon Brown was the one man who remained calm. He knew what needed to be done, and became this hyper-active global player, pulling the levers, making the deals, and keeping the show on the road. Rather like an alternative version of Tony Blair post 9/11.
Maybe the constant in all these phases – apart from Brown’s self-belief which clearly has some visible doubts and cracks – is the notion of a ‘Great British project’ with himself and Labour at the heart of it. This believes in the power of good that can be utilised by moral persuasion and soft power (as well as hard power where necessary). In all of this, he is clearly a Labour tribalist through and through, and it is absolutely secondary what this vehicle stands for, rather than the fact that it stands and supports and sustains what its supporters see as a lineage of British progressive ideas.
This brings us back to Piers Morgan and the impending publication of Andrew Rawnsley’s new book, ‘The End of the Party’. It is fitting that New Labour’s period in office has been bookended by Rawnsley books. The first, ‘Servants of the People’ reduced politics to tittle-tattle, gossip and positioning about who had Tony or Gordon’s ear (4). It earned Rawnsley lots of attention and reviews, and yet it is a depressing, diminishing book with a vacuum at its heart. This is a version of politics without ideas or ideology, and all about personalities, egos and power.
‘The End of the Party’ promises more of the same with 816 long pages filled with tales of Gordon shouting, throwing things and abusing people (5). These books have become the defining tomes of our truncated, atrophied democracy, and like Rawnsley’s regular ‘Observer’ columns they are a deliberate collusion with those in authority, to tell a partial story about the UK. It is the Rawnsley account of our times which has led to the supposed shock value and subversion of ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘In the Loop’, accounts which are all about masculinised preening and strutting, and bereft of any notion of values.
It is only a short journey from Andrew Rawnsley to Piers Morgan interviewing Gordon Brown, hoping to show a different side of him. In many respects, I feel for Brown in this, as his advisers hope this interview will do for him what the Kinnock Party Political Broadcast did for him in 1987. That film transformed Kinnock’s ratings, but it did not move Labour’s ratings who still decisively lost the election.
The account of what New Labour, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have done to our democracy, society and politics, and what it has done to our hopes and beliefs in what is possible, has yet to be written. The story still has a couple of chapters left and the fate of the Cameroon project is clearly related to it.
Yet Gordon Brown’s journey and tragedy isn’t just a personal one, of a man who having gone through several different phases, has become trapped in the summation of his actions. It is also that all of this has a deeper resonance about the tragedy of the British Labour Party, and its failure to be a successful vehicle for progressive or democratic values, both historically and in extreme form under New Labour.
It is not just Gordon Brown who has become boxed in by events, but a Labour Party which has to ask itself at some point, what does it stand for, who does it claim to give a voice, and what if anything remains in its ‘soul’?
1. Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, ITV, February 14th 2010, http://www.itv.com/entertainment/chatandtalent/piersmorganslifestories/default.html
2. Gerry Hassan, ‘Don’t Mess with the Missionary Man: Brown, Moral Compasses and the Road to Britishness’, Political Quarterly Special Issue on Britishness, 2009, https://www.gerryhassan.com/?p=768; Gerry Hassan, ‘Labour’s Journey from Socialism to Social Democracy: A Case Study of Gordon Brown’s Political Thought’, in Gerry Hassan (ed.), The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas, Edinburgh University Press 2004, pp. 195-218.
3. Tom Bower, Gordon Brown, Harper Collins 2004; Paul Routledge, Gordon Brown: The Biography, Simon and Schuster 1998.
4. Andrew Rawnsley, Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour, Hamish Hamilton 2000.
5. Andrew Rawnsley, The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour, Viking 2010.