Don’t Mess with the Missionary Man: Brown, Moral Compasses and the Road to Britishness
December 22nd 2009
in Tony Wright and Andrew Gamble (eds), Political Quarterly Special Issue on Britishness, Blackwell 2009
‘…we long for that most elusive quality in our leaders–the quality of authenticity, of being who you say you are, of possessing a truthfulness that goes beyond words.’
Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (1)
Once upon a time one way people used to judge politicians was by the words they used: in books, pamphlets, articles and speeches. Politicians cared passionately about the words they used, knew they would in part be judged by them, and attempted to create that ‘quality of authenticity’ to show their words linked to a set of values and view of the world.
Looking at the pantheon of Labour politicians through the party’s history, a number of its leaders in its early years–Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, John Wheatley and James Maxton to name but four–straddled the world of thinking and writing about politics and acting as politicians (2). This tradition has continued–with later R. H. Tawney, R. H. S. Crossman and Tony Crosland–attempting to define a modern sense of the socialist credo. More recently, Michael Foot can be seen within this tradition, while pre-Diaries Tony Benn showed in his work the paucity of much of his thinking (3); the same can also be said of Tony Blair’s few writings which show a politician with only the most superficial understanding of ideas (4).
Another strand of political writing centres more on national leadership and the power and integrity of character. This can be seen in the industry of American Presidential hopefuls and their books: the modern brand of which began with J. F. Kennedy’s ‘Profiles in Courage’ (5). Nowadays it is de riguer for American Presidential prospective candidates to have their life story or vision put in book form whether it is Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Rudolph Giuliani (6). These books offer a very different concept of politics to the Labour style of writing: being about the centrality of personality, the importance of charisma and the practice of positioning in party and national contests.
Gordon Brown’s writings have their roots in this earlier concept of the Labour politician as someone combining writing and thinking about politics with the act of being a politician. They have in the course of over thirty years shifted terrain, focus and style, bringing more and more to the fore the importance of character: both Brown’s and others as a leitmotiv of change, most recently seen in his invoking of JFK with his own version of ‘Courage’ (7).
This essay aims to position Gordon Brown in this context–and explore the main manifestations of Brown’s moral compass leading up to his contemporary fascination with Britishness (8).
Gordon Brown: the Missionary Man
Gordon Brown has consistently throughout his public life presented himself as a politician with a moral mission and compass and his thoughts, writings and public interventions from the earliest age have reflected this (9).
First Wave Brown: the age of ‘Red Brown’
In the 1970s Brown portrayed himself himself as a young radical whose moral mission coalesced around the ideas of socialism and political economy. Examining Brown’s writings in these areas it is revealing that these are not in fact that radical. Instead, in their concept of ‘socialism’ these are writings shaped by the conventional Labour ethos of time memorial. The introduction to ‘The Red Paper’ essays sees Brown cite a plethora of ‘new left’ heroes: Gramsci, Freire, E. P. Thompson and others, but this appears window-dressing compared to the references to ‘Scotland’s socialist pioneers’ such as Keir Hardie, Wheatley and Maxton (10).
This is a political view very close to the ethical socialism of the early Labour movement–one that is short of detail and programmatic policy and full of exhortation and rhetoric (11). There is a general feeling in Brown’s writing at this time of what was a very fashionable view in certain circles–that the reformism of recent Labour governments had failed and needed to be transcended. However, the strategy he offers is one which appeals more to emotion and a cumulative radical challenge to capitalist rationale: a sort of left Fabianism without the detail.
It was also very different from what passed for radical left thinking at this time. All of Brown’s biographers from the hatchet job of Tom Bower to the hagiography of Paul Routledge emphasise this as the time of ‘Red Brown’ (12). However, it becomes obvious reading Brown that such writers have never made a comparative analysis of left writing at the time. The contributions of various left groups of the period–such as the Institute for Workers’ Control–are filled with detailed proposals for advancing the power of organising labour and challenging capital (13). Brown’s radicalism of the period looks positively lame by comparison, an act of posturing and going with the grain, without one single specific policy recommendation.
There is also in the Brown of the 1970s little detailed understanding of political economy whether at a British or international level despite Brown’s reputation at the time and subsequently. Instead, there is a wide, but shallow understanding of the economic literature of the time and regurgitating of numerous facts and figures. A useful comparison can be made between Brown and the detailed work of Stuart Holland and Michael Barrett Brown which developed a sophisticated model of capitalism and the challenge of corporate power to democracy (14). All of this is referenced in passing by Brown but the substance of it eluded him.
Second Wave Brown: Supply Side Socialism Man
A decade later the Brown of the 1980s positioned himself as the self-appointed champion of Labour’s eternal values. At this point, Labour’s humiliation in 1983 called for a reappraisal of the party’s policies and how it conducted and presented itself. Brown’s writings show a distinct shift–from numerous references to ‘socialism’ in his earlier phase to its replacement by frequent mentions of ‘social democracy’.
His main moral crusade at this point coalesces around the idea of ‘social justice’–the subject of a collection edited with Robin Cook and his maiden speech in the House of Commons (15). Central to this was challenging the harsh, uncaring consequences of Tory ‘enterprise culture’ and giving a voice to the disadvantaged and victims of government policy. Brown stated at the time that he believed ‘making the case for social justice is not the same as solving the problem of poverty’ (16).
Within all Brown’s contributions on social justice at this time it is interesting to note how little of interest or originality he had to say, but how he made it go a long way. He was neither ‘new left’ Brown or old fashioned labourite, but by 1983 this wasn’t controversial but instead the mainstream majority of Kinnockite Labour.
Subsequently Brown began to branch out to develop a more detailed account of the failures of Thatcherite economics. This concentrated on the short-termism of British industry, its failure to invest and the need to develop a long-term approach to investing in people, education and skills. At this point from Labour’s election defeat in 1987 onwards the party through the process of the Policy Review began its long haul to reposition itself as a pro-business party (17).
Brown became a rising star in Labour and published a book, ‘Where There is Greed’ which attempted to coherently critique Thatcherite economics. The book contains little of originality, but repeats the mainstream left view of the Conservatives. Brown openly advocated ‘a new supply side socialism’ centred on ‘efficiency and fairness’ (18). What is more interesting are the omissions and silences with no cogent critique of the City and the power of finance capital, and little acknowledgement of the long-term structural weaknesses and imbalances in the UK which culminated in Thatcherism.
Third wave Brown: the Man Next Door
The third wave of Brown’s thinking contributed to the ascent of New Labour. His moral mission still coalesced around ideas of the economy and social justice to deliver Labour’s historic goals of full employment, ending poverty and widening opportunity for all.
Brown’s thinking on the economy and social justice had shifted significantly from his critique of Thatcherism in the 1980s. His approach to the UK economy had now become based on a mix of second generation neoliberalism along with investment in skills and education to make workers more competitive and efficient in the world economy. This was a very functionalist, determinist mindset which seemed devoid of any real heart, soul and emotion.
To soften this very unappealing world Brown remained convinced of a concept of social justice which was now defined more narrowly than before. It was now focused on the priorities of ending child and pensioner poverty, but omitted talk of the super-rich, the responsibility of those who were ‘winners’ in society, or the gaping inequalities between rich and poor.
In the early days of New Labour’s reign Brown began to turn to the idea of Britishness as a third pillar in his moral mission. This was partly due to the recognition of the changing nature of the union, but part was due to a realisation that his economy and social justice messages were neither distinctive nor that appealing.
Brown’s discovery of Britishness
Thus Brown’s emerging story of Britishness has been a slow burning one and not one which has been a constant in his political life. In the period of ‘Red Brown’ as he pontificated and fine-tuned the nuance of his rhetoric, he attempted to articulate a ‘third way’ between an unconditional Scottish nationalism and British unionism. He stressed that Scottish socialists should not support Scottish independence which ‘postpones the question of meeting urgent social and economic needs’, but nor should they ‘give unconditional support to maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom and all that entails–without any guarantee of radical social change’ (19). In later years, this subtle positioning seems merely to have been grandstanding and point-scoring on the part of the young Brown to differentiate himself from his elders in the party.
In ‘The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution’, Brown’s neglected and forgotten book with academic Henry Drucker, Brown addressed the failure of Scottish devolution in 1979 and looked to identify ways it could succeed at a Scottish and UK level. The most interesting and revealing proposal that Brown elucidated is that he makes the controversial case for ‘in/out voting’ or ‘English votes for English laws’ as it has become known post-devolution. He states that this would in all likelihood lead to a ‘semi-permanent Tory majority’ in the Commons, which he recognises would be ‘no small prize’, but believes worth paying for a ‘Scottish Assembly’ (20).
One of the main consistencies of Brown’s writings which the previous section indicated has been his lack of original thinking, saying anything radical at all, and yet, somehow giving the appearance of the exact opposite. Brown has been able through the years to write at great length and provide no hostages to fortune to future Tory researchers!
The exception of this example is traceable to the book being co-written with Henry Drucker, but Brown sanctioned all of its contents. The book also contains the beginnings of an outline for a coherent programme of reforming the British state which was radical and far ahead of its time: something Brown was never to show any real interest in beyond rhetoric. Thus, it outlines the case for proportional representation in the Scottish Assembly, consideration of sweeping reform at a British level and challenging Treasury centralism: issues which could not exactly be seen as close to Brown’s heart (21).
Brown’s discovery of and identification with Britishness involves a number of factors. It came about at the politically expedient point in the emergence of New Labour, the development of its constitutional reform programme, and Brown’s visible presence as the ‘premier-in waiting’. The theme of Britishness allowed him both to address the subject of the UK in flux, and develop a Brown credo which went way beyond his Treasury brief or his usual subjects of the economy and social justice. This later-day odyssey attempted to do a number of things.
First, Brown has attempted to provide a good story of Britishness–about culture, civilisation and enlightenment. Britishness has for long been a subject of embarrassment or scorn to progressives and Brown sees this as a self-defeating position vacating a huge terrain of territory, symbols and history to the Tories. Instead, progressives need to reclaim these areas so that the Union Jack can become ‘a flag for all Britain–symbolising inclusion, tolerance and unity’ (22).
Second, it is a story about domestic progress attempting to connect Britishness and the story of free health care, education for all and widening opportunity. In this, institutions such as the NHS, BBC and British Council are seen as having a vital role in transmitting progressive values synonymous with Britishness (23).
Third, it articulates an account of progress across the nations and peoples of these isles which emphasises and celebrates the uniqueness of the United Kingdom. This perspective stresses that the multicultural, multinational basis of the UK is unprecedented and claims the UK in typically modest (almost quasi-Thatcherite rhetoric) terms as the most successful union of its kind anywhere and anytime in human history. Brown put this in an interview in 1999:
I see Britain as being the first country in the world that can be a multicultural, multi-ethnic and multinational state. America, at its best, is a multicultural and multi-ethnic society, but America does not have nationalities within identifiable political units in the way that Britain does. We have a chance to forge a unique pluralist democracy where diversity becomes a source of strength.(24)
Fourth, it is about the United Kingdom’s role as a force for good in the world. This emphasises Britain’s role in a series of alliances and institutions, which due to its history and values allow it to address issues with more influence than its size on international aid, debt relief and world poverty, along with freeing trade to aid Africa and the developing world. Moreover, by Britain’s position sitting in a nexus of institutions from the Commonwealth to UN Security Council, IMF, WTO, GATT and others it has the capacity due to its history and understanding to bring a moral dimension to international issues.
Fifth, Brown’s aim in this aspires to interweave Labour’s story with that of the United Kingdom: to tell a peoples’ story rather than a traditional account. In the Labour story the state was used as a lifting hand to bring people out of poverty, to give them wider opportunity and hope, and to banish the blighted prospects and aspirations which had disfigured generations of working class communities. Brown and Douglas Alexander articulated this in their defence of the union at its 300th anniversary: ‘The union in 2007 is now clearly founded on social justice’ (25). For much of the post-war period, Labour’s story became that of the British political system and elite (and one the Conservatives bought into), and Brown sees his mission on Britishness as to make this ‘progressive consensus’ more explicit and secure.
Finally, this was a mission informed by the growing crisis of democratic legitimacy and involvement which characterised the British political system. The Britishness agenda fed into an increasing recognition by government of the need to support and encourage volunteering and people contributing to helping others in a way which acknowledged the difference this made to the civic life of Britain. This tied into discussions about the potential of citizenship, from breaking with the old culture of people being subjects to immigrants passing citizenship tests and taking ‘Oaths of Allegiance’.
What is the story of the re-emergence of Britishness?
The wide-ranging and daunting list of areas which Brown has attempted to address begs the wider question of why he chose to embark on this journey in the first place. One of the most significant reasons is the damage that the Thatcherite revolution has inflicted on the beliefs and confidence of social democracy. This has resulted in New Labour’s core concepts (and later-day Brown’s too) of the economy and social justice being barely decipherable from the other mainstream political parties. They have all positioned themselves in the narrow centre ground of the post-Thatcherite/Blairite environment.
Therefore, Brown’s account of Britishness is an attempt to combine a synthesis of the Labour story of Britain which reached its apex in the 1945-70 period with an embrace and advocacy of the post-Thatcherite view of the world. This uneasy and conflicting alliance mirrors the strange mix within New Labour itself: elements of social democratic policy within a wider neoliberal polity (26).
Second, Labour has historically had a problem with the British state (27). Its main traditions have involved an uncritical embrace of the state as ‘neutral’ and a force for progressive ends. Labour’s history from its arrival as a minority government in 1924 and more pronouncedly from 1940 when it entered the Churchill wartime coalition saw it as a party become incorporated into the Westminster political system which thus influenced its ethos and outlook. All through Labour’s travails with devolution first in the 1960s and 1970s and subsequently post-1997, the party aimed to square the circle of supporting devolution and maintaining the integrity of the central state.
Third, alongside this has been Labour’s understanding of the territorial dimensions and nations of the UK. Despite British Labour having its origins in Scotland, Wales and outlier groups of the British political system, it quickly bought into the dominant political system’s understanding of the UK. This was an account which emphasised despite there being four nations in the UK the homogenisation of the territory, common interests and values and saw ‘Britishness’ and its association with socio-economic allegiances of class and background transcend place.
The British political establishment, Labour included, have long understood the UK as a unitary state: a place with one centre of power and authority. However, the UK is not and never has been a unitary state, but is instead what is known as a ‘union state’ (28). This involves a complex set of different arrangements allowing for local, regional and sub-national differences and importantly, the preservation of pre-union rights in the case of Scotland. However, the political classes have more and more clung to the idea of the UK as a unitary state with grave consequences for the centre acts and sees politics and power.
From Labour’s concept of the state and nations comes its attempt to stand up to the challenge of Scottish and to a lesser extent Welsh nationalism. The electoral forces of the SNP and Plaid Cymru threatened Labour in its once safe heartlands and thus its prospects for a British-wide coalition forming a government. Labour’s answer to this was first shaped by an ad hoc response and expediency, but post-1997 the party’s commitment to Scottish and Welsh devolution became more thought through and convincing. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly with nationalist parties as the main challenge to Labour required a new way of presenting the case for the union (29).
The Scottish and Welsh challenge had a direct bearing on the party’s anxiety on ‘the English Question’. Scotland and Wales had grievances and a ‘democratic deficit’ pre-devolution; some argued that England had this post-devolution. The asymmetrical union that characterises the UK has to some shifted its inconsistencies and anomalies from Scotland and Wales to England; some regard this as a perennially British situation which most English people seem to be willing to put up with for the moment; others see this as an intolerable situation.
This is focused around ‘the West Lothian Question’–Scots MPs voting on such issues as education and health for England which does not affect their constituencies (30). This has a political salience when Scottish Labour MPs provide the crucial votes for foundation hospitals and top-up student fees in England which are not being introduced by the Scottish government (31). This has led to calls for identifying what legislation in front of Parliament is ‘English’ and ‘English votes for English laws’–something Brown once saw the point of.
The contemporary Brown now sees this as something which needs to be headed off–not by English regionalism or an English Parliament or anything which fundamentally changes the order. Brown’s exploration of Britishness is despite not directly dealing with England, an attempt to identify a set of values and stories which unite the English into the UK.
Brown’s credo hopes to address growing concerns in society about immigration and multiculturalism. A new narrative evolved under New Labour which saw multiculturalism as placing too much emphasis on diversity and separate development and too little on integration and common values (32). The search for a set of British values was seen as a means of articulating an inclusive British citizenship.
This was also related to anxieties over the ‘war on terror’. Increasingly, the Blair and Brown governments talked and acted tough on dealing with ‘suspected terrorists’ and challenged civil rights and liberties. A more subtle track of addressing these concerns saw British authorities stress the importance of winning the battle for ‘the hearts and minds’ of British Muslim communities by emphasising common British values (33).
Then, of course there is the personal dimension behind all this. Gordon Brown is a Scotsman representing a Scottish constituency post-devolution. He is the living embodiment of ‘the West Lothian Question’. In the period before Brown became Prime Minister a host of polls and surveys showed a growing English and British set of anxieties about the state of the union. One indicated that 76 percent of British respondents though the current situation with Scots MPs able to vote on English matters was unfair (34). All of this mattered to Brown as he waited to become Prime Minister of the UK.
The omissions of the Britishness agenda
There are profound problems and omissions about Brown’s Britishness agenda. For one, it is systematically silent on the structural weaknesses and lack of democracy in the British constitution. The political re-ordering of the last thirty years which has seen the rise of the centralist Thatcherite/Blairite state is not fundamentally questioned by Brown, but instead actively embraced. All of Brown’s rhetoric as chancellor and PM on the perils of centralism, command and control and the need for localism is just that, and the examples of localism and devolution he chooses as examples are ones where the centre still has power and decides the rules (such as Sure Start and English RDAs).
This illustrates Labour’s historic and contemporary failure to understand the importance of ‘constitutional reform’ even with a government which was supposedly committed to such a programme. The Blair government began with much pomp and hype in its ‘New Britain’ days to enact a programme of reform with the aim of renewing and modernising British democracy (35). Brown talked of the British tradition of adaptability and willingness ‘to embrace, not fear constitutional reform’ (36); Britain would move ‘from an over-centralised and uniform state–the old Britain of subjects–to a pluralist and decentralised democracy–the new Britain of citizens’ (37).
It was clear from early on that Blair had no interest in this at all and Brown had little beyond rhetoric, with no coherent set of reforms. This became even more self-evident after the 9/11 attacks when the government began to vandalise parts of its own constitutional reform programme, seeking derogation from the Human Rights Act for example to detain ‘suspected terrorists’.
Another weakness lay in the relationship between England and the UK. Brown consistently laid claim to an English tradition and lineage of human rights and standing up to arbitrary power citing Magna Carta, the Peasants’ revolt, English Civil War and Bill of Rights as British traditions (38). This is a terrain requiring subtle reading and analysis, and there is a powerful narrative within British progressive thinking which claims English radical traditions as British: one only needs to think of Tony Benn’s constant incantation of the Levellers and Diggers or Michael Foot (39). There has to be recognition that English struggles do play a huge part in what it means to be British, witness David Davies’ resignation from the Conservative Shadow Front Bench citing the importance of Magna Carta in his battle with the government over extending detention to 42 days (40).
Brown’s confusion of England and Britain does seem to be a deep, seismic one which illustrates that he has problems with both concepts. His vision of ‘a Britain of regions and nations’ is one where Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are nations and England is a collection of regions (41). England in Brown’s Britain seems forever silenced and forbidden to speak in its own collective national voice, yet is co-opted and claimed for the greater British story.
London to take one example in Brown’s thinking just did not seem to exist. This was true of the London that was the imperial capital of the Empire and centre of power and administration in the British state. It was also true of the city of the 21st century which saw itself as a reinvented ‘city-state’ and global player.
‘The English problem’ can be witnessed in the numerous writers and authorities Brown trundles out to show the historic importance of liberty in our political culture. These include Edmund Burke, William Wordsworth, William Hazlitt and George Orwell who speak about English liberty, character, culture and politics. At some points, Brown is on very thin ground misquoting or inaccurately citing some of the above, most obviously when he changes Orwell’s ‘English genius’ into ‘the British genius’ (42). However, at other times when he has cited the people above or for example Winston Churchill on Britishness, it is more that the person Brown is citing is using ‘English’ as interchangeable with ‘British’ (43). This is complex territory, but it is clear that Brown errs in a manner which is at times simplifying and misrepresenting some of the most influential figures in British history and appropriating them to his cause of redefining Britishness.
Brown’s Britishness agenda scandalously either neglects or tries to offer an apology for the British past associated with empire, colonialism and imperialism. Thus, the darker side of British history upon which so much of the country’s trade, commerce and wealth was based: slavery, rape, torture and genocide, barely get a look-in; the British state just before the 200th anniversary of its abolition in the British Empire called it a ‘crime against humanity’ and expressed ‘deep sorrow’ that it ever happened which stopped just short of a full apology or offering any redress (44).
Brown has been on even more controversial ground trying to reclaim the British Empire as a force for good. Such views were once seen as enlightened and uncontroversial with the Empire presented as a means by which ‘backward peoples’ and nations would attain civilised standards (45). Brown does not go that far of course, but he has stated that we should stop apologising and instead feel pride about the Empire: ‘the days of Britain having to apologise for our history are over … we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it’ (46). In a contemporary setting, such claims should really form no part of any centre-left politician’s thinking, and it shows how far Brown has travelled that he has articulated such opinions.
The articulation of a good news story about Britishness by Brown led to the omission of some of its more negative aspects and history; Ireland for example has been completely ignored. The British state’s treatment of Ireland from conquest and colonisation to brutal repression and two bitter wars in the last century involving British armed forces, is passed over in silence by Brown. The UK government eventually realised it could not achieve a military victory over the IRA resulting in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Downing Street Declaration and under Labour, Good Friday Agreement (47). This entire terrain clearly has implications for the British state and Britishness and yet Brown’s credo is one in which the island of Ireland just does not register.
The construction of Britishness offered by Brown is a strangely insular creation which tries to ignore that national identity is never just about internal characteristics and relationships, but external relationships as well. Britishness is influenced by the set of concentric circles it finds itself located in the idea of ‘England as a world island’ situated in the worlds of union, Commonwealth, Europe and Anglo-America (48). These mirror Churchill’s historic grasp of post-war Britain within three worlds–Empire, Europe and Anglo-America with the UK playing a role in all three which allowed it to avoid having to make a decision about its role (49).
The Brown vision encounters problems with regard to UK relations with the European Union and Atlanticism. Both of these have reshaped what the UK is in the post-war era, the nature of state and polity, and how the UK practices self-determination and sovereignty without the British political classes being upfront about the consequences. Europe now frames a large part of UK legislation passed by the UK Parliament, whereas Atlanticism now permeates the British political, military and security elites and is one of the defining pillars of British post-war identity. Brown chooses to remain silent on the consequences of these two relationships for Britishness.
Brown’s fatal embrace and the crisis of Social Democracy
Brown’s articulation of a British credo has to be seen as part of his eternal quest to see the world in terms of moral missions and crusades. His discourses on Britishness came relatively late in his political life, only really appearing in a sustained way with the emergence and ascendancy of New Labour and its decade in office. However, any hope that this would be linked to the beginning of a programme of fundamental constitutional reform and altering in a far-reaching way the manner in which political power is held and practised in the UK was soon dissipated by Brown’s actions as Prime Minister.
The actions of Brown as chancellor and prime minister seem to point to his interest in Britishness being mere window-addressing and political camouflage. Brown was not interested at all in changing the Westminster power system which sees the executive dominate the legislature, hold unprecedented centralist control and reach over aspects of British domestic life, and the manner in which politics and power is conducted. There was no inclination that the Thatcherite/Blairite state was suffering from ‘overload’ or that the old checks and balances which once made the British constitution the envy of many had been eroded and broken.
Instead, Brown’s promulgation of Britishness is about shoring up the discredited status quo and maintaining Westminster’s hold and power. It is an attempt to develop a counter-story to the calls for systematic reform, and prevent any serious redistribution of power in the UK political system which fundamentally rebalances the centre-local relationship and gives local government a new voice and respect, which develops a new centre which stops trying to extend its reach into every part of the UK, and which comes to a new accommodation with Europe and checks the obsession of our political classes with Atlanticism.
One pivotal political area Brown wishes to avoid in these deliberations is any discussion about the location of Britishness: about what it is, who speaks for it, and where it places itself in the world in a geo-political sense. And it is these kinds of conversations which are needed to give meaning to any debate.
Fundamentally, the emergence of Britishness has to be located in the crisis of social democracy as the political and governing philosophy of New Labour. The social democratic outlook has been battered, bruised and diminished by the experience of New Labour and the Blair and Brown governments, and yet at the same time both administrations have retained the means by which Labour in office undertook its politics and polity: namely centralism and command and control. Once upon a time this was a means to the end of the promise of a socialist commonwealth (à la Attlee), but now it has become about the shere brutalities of power and maintenance of neoliberalism.
This journey also marks a personal one for Gordon Brown in his writing, thoughts and how he sees himself as a politician. It represents a profound shift from the politics of values and ideas in the 1970s to that of the politics of character and the individual in the 21st century. Brown’s transition from referencing socialist, usually British thinkers in the 1970s, to his embrace of centre-right and liberal thinkers today mirrors this change. He has shifted from eulogising James Maxton and John Wheatley to British writers such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill and American ones including Gertrude Himmerlfarb and James Q. Wilson (50).
This is a shift from seeing the world from a socialist perspective to one informed by a liberal and centre-right perspective. It can also be seen in Brown’s book ‘Courage’ which contains the portraits of eight people ‘driven and sustained by higher ideals’ not one of whom is connected to the Labour Party or wider socialist tradition (51).
Yet, for most of the last thirty years Brown has managed to present himself as an ideas man, deeply committed to thinking, intellectual concepts and looking to address the serious issues of the day. Sadly, there is little in his writings, thoughts or actions in office which give serious sustenance to this. His journey is an example of ‘the paradox of authenticity in our political culture’ where politicians present a manufactured version of themselves which gives the pretence of being ‘authentic’ (52).
Gordon Brown’s politics represent a fatal embrace of the governing orthodoxies of the last few decades: of social democracy’s compromise and collusion with neoliberalism, and the failure of the Labour Party to attempt to make the political weather after Thatcherism. It is in this wider tragedy and story that Brown’s interest and exploration of Britishness has to be seen.
1. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Edinburgh, Canongate, 2007, p. 66.
2. Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People: Labour Leaders and Lieutenants, Hardie to Kinnock, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987.
3. Tony Benn, Arguments for Socialism, London, Jonathan Cape, 1979; Arguments for Democracy, London, Jonathan Cape, 1981.
4. Tony Blair, Socialism, London, Fabian Society, 1994; New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, London, Fourth Estate, 1996; The Third Way: New Politics for the New Century, London, Fabian Society, 1998.
5. John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage: Decisive Moments in the Lives of Celebrated Americans, New York, Harper and Bros, 1956.
6. David Greenberg, ‘Reading the Candidates’, Dissent, Fall, 2007, http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=939
7. Gordon Brown, Courage: Eight Portraits, London, Bloomsbury, 2007.
8. For another perspective on Brown’s thinking on Britishness and the future prospects of the UK see: Gerry Hassan, ‘Brown and the importance of being British’, Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2008, pp. 13-24.
9. 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, Edinburgh University Press, 2004, pp. 195-218.
10. Gordon Brown, ‘Introduction: the Socialist challenge’, in Gordon Brown, ed., The Red Paper on Scotland, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Student Publications Board, 1975, p. 19.
11. Norman Dennis and A. H. Halsey, English Ethical Socialism: Thomas More to R. H. Tawney, Oxford, Clarendon Press,1988.
12. Tom Bower, Gordon Brown, London, Harper Collins, 2004; Paul Routledge, Gordon Brown: The Biography, London, Simon and Schuster, 1998.
13. For example: Ken Coates and Tony Topham, eds., Workers’ Control: A Book of Readings and Witnesses for Workers’ Control, London, Panther Books, 1970; Ken Coates, ed., Essays on Industrial Democracy, Nottingham, Spokesman Books, 1971.
14. Stuart Holland, The Socialist Challenge, London, Quartet Books, 1975; Michael Barrett Brown, From Labourism to Socialism: The Political Economy of Labour in the 1970s, Nottingham, Spokesman Books, 1972.
15. Gordon Brown and Robin Cook, eds, Scotland: The Real Divide: Poverty and Deprivation in Scotland, Edinburgh, Mainstream, 1983; House of Commons, 27 July 1983, cols. 1226-44.
16. Gordon Brown, ‘Introduction’, in Brown and Cook, p. 20.
17. Eric Shaw, The Labour Party since 1979: Crisis and Transformation, London, Routledge, 1994, Chapter. 4.
18. Gordon Brown, Where There is Greed …: Margaret Thatcher and the Betrayal of Britain’s Future, Edinburgh, Mainstream, 1989, p. 10.
19. Gordon Brown, ‘Introduction: The Socialist Challenge’, in The Red Paper, pp. 8-9.
20. H. M. Drucker and Gordon Brown, The Politics of Nationalism and Devolution, London, Longman, 1980, p. 127.
21. Drucker and Brown, pp. 127-29.
22. Gordon Brown, British Council 70th Anniversary Annual Lecture, London, 7 July 2004.
23. Brown, 70th Anniversary Annual Lecture.
24. Quoted in Steve Richards, ‘Interview with Gordon Brown’, New Statesman, 19 April 1999.
25. Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander, Stronger Together: The 21st century case for Scotland and Britain, London, Fabian Society, 2007, p. 25.
26. Alan Finlayson, Making Sense of New Labour, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2003.
27. Gerry Hassan, ‘Labour, concepts of Britishness, ‘nation’ and ‘state’’, in Gerry Hassan, ed., After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2007, pp. 75-93.
28. Stein Rokkan and Derek Urwin, ‘Introduction: Centres and Peripheries in Western Europe’, in Stein Rokkan and Derek Urwin, eds., The Politics of Territorial Identity: Studies In European Regionalism, London, Sage, 1982.
29. Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander, New Scotland, New Britain, London, Smith Institute, 1999; Brown and Alexander, 2006.
30. Tam Dalyell, Devolution: The End of Britain, London, Jonathan Cape, 1977.
31. The Labour government won the vote on foundation hospitals in England by 302 to 285–a government majority of 17 on 19 November 2003. It won the vote on student top-up fees by 316 to 311–a majority of five on 26 January 2004 with 46 Scottish Labour MPs voting with the government, five against and three abstentions.
32. See as an example of this: David Goodhart, Progressive Nationalism: Citizenship and the Left, London, Demos, 2006.
33. Gordon Brown, ‘Securing Our Future’, Speech to Royal United Services Institute, London, 13 February 2006.
34. You Gov Survey Report April 2007, London, You Gov, 2007, pp. 4-5.
35. Robert Hazell, ed., Constitutional Futures: A History of the Next Ten Years, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999; Anthony Barnett, This Time: Our Constitutional Revolution, London, Vintage, 1997.
36. Gordon Brown, ‘Annual Spectator/Allied Dunbar Lecture’, Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, London, 4 November 1997.
37. Gordon Brown, Speech to the Smith Institute conference on Britishness, 15April 1999.
38. Gordon Brown, ‘The Future of Britishness’, Speech to the Fabian Society ‘The Future of Britishness’ conference, London, 14 January 2006.
39. Tony Benn, Arguments for Socialism, 1979, p. 146.
40. David Davies, The Times, 19 June 2008.
41. Gordon Brown, Speech to University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, 26 January 2001.
42. Gordon Brown, Speech to the Smith Institute, 1999. Brown was misquoting George Orwell’s famous ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’ published in 1941.
43. For a perspective which takes a less forgiving line of Brown’s use and confusion between ‘English’ and ‘British’ see: Simon Lee, ‘Gordon Brown and the ‘British Way’, Political Quarterly, Vol. 77 No. 3, 2006, pp. 369-78.
44. David Smith, ‘Blair: Britain’s ‘sorrow’ for shame of slave trade’, The Observer, 26 November 2006.
45. Bernard Porter, The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism 1850-2004, London, Longman, 2004 4th edn.
46. Quoted in Martha Kearney, ‘Brown seeks out ‘British values’’, BBC News, 14 March 2005.
47. Brown has mentioned the Good Friday Agreement once in his contributions on Britishness: ‘So devolution does not create new identities; it gives existing identities an institutional form, whether it be Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. This is made explicit in the Good Friday Agreement, which for example states ‘the birthright of all the peoples of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British or both.’’ Brown, Speech to the Smith Institute, 1999.
48. Andrew Gamble, Between Europe and America: The Future of British Politics, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, p. 30.
49. Gamble, Between Europe and America.
50. George Orwell is the exception Gordon Brown continues to quote from the centre-left in his contributions on Britishness.
51. Brown, Courage, p. 1.
52. Greenberg, ‘Reading the Candidates’. The quotation cited is about American political culture, but the point is easily transferable to ours.