The Missed Opportunity of ‘Broonland’
Sunday Times, February 28th 2010
Christopher Harvie, Broonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown, Verso £8.99
Chris Harvie is a rare bird in the field sport of Scottish politics, a cultural and historical polymath and bon viveur who in part seems to belong from another era, one of Victorian romance, grand visions and eclectic ideas.
Harvie has spent most of his academic life in Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany and upon retiring came back to Scotland. Standing for the SNP in the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, he found himself, as No. 5 on the list in Mid-Scotland and Fife, in the surprising position of being elected.
There is something joyously surprising and uplifting in today’s age of party automatons in Harvie’s election, a feeling added to by the sight of seeing him strutting around the Parliament, dressed like a character from some age of Tory squires or an Ealing ‘Victorian’ comedy.
Scotland needs its characters and eccentrics, and we need to treasure them, and Harvie is both in droves. At the same time, he has contributed voluminously to the predicament of modern Scotland and its history, and the nature of the UK. He has written two defining academic tomes, ‘No Gods and Precious Few Heroes’ and ‘Scotland and Nationalism’ from the late 1970s and early 1980s.
And he has written a host of polemical tomes – most recently, ‘Travelling Scot’, ‘Deep Fried Hillman Imp’ and ‘Mending Scotland’ – which fizz with ideas, anger and frustration at the state of Scotland, and its inability to incubate a sense of political imagination.
‘Broonland’ fits into the later category. Apparently three years in gestation, it however has the feel of an instantly brewed and rushed polemic. Some of the text has appeared in various Harvie e-essays for a couple of years, and yet sadly, the whole project has the tone and argument of feeling rushed and unconsidered.
It has the style despite the length of fermentation of being unconstrained indignation, rather than being crafted and studiously put together. The whole thing feels like it was written over a couple of days, in the way eminent historian Andrew Roberts boasted of writing the admittedly short and slight ‘Hitler and Churchill’ in one day.
Harvie offers us an explanation of Brown the man and ‘Gordon’s Kingdom’ of Fife, setting the scene for a critique of the ‘casino capitalism’ of the bankrupt, broken Britain.
Unfortunately, the Brown that is portrayed in these pages is nothing but a stereotype. Harvie recalls him in the late 1970s as ‘an idealist, generous and anarchic, continually pouring out new ideas’, and the inference is that he sees the young Brown as a twin soul who has gone wrong.
The central reference point of Brown according to Harvie like many others is that of the ‘Citizen Brown’ of ‘The Red Paper’ years. The problem with this analysis is that it takes the years of ‘Red Brown’ as a given, rather than comparing the pronouncements of the great man in the 1970s to the numerous radical, left currents which were fermenting at the time.
Brown presented the allure and appeal of the radical, and as was common then, mouthed many of the left platitudes and slogans. Yet, underneath, Brown has consistently been a conservative, cautious figure, who has always gone with the grain of the times rather than strike out boldly. Thus, his role in the creation of New Labour can be seen both as his most revolutionary act, while keeping with the pattern of going along with prevailing orthodoxies!
The book is littered with factual errors. The defeat of the 1979 Labour Government in a vote of no confidence, one of the key dates in post-war UK politics, is given as April 1st, when it was March 28th. Most of Brown’s books publication dates are wrong, the Brown/Cook volume by a year, the ‘Maxton’ biography by two years, while the title of Broon’s PhD is inaccurate and its date out by a mere five years!
A glance at Harvie’s sources at the end reveals that this book was the product of little original research. The main media cited is ‘The Guardian’, with the occasional ‘FT’ thrown in, along with a couple of cursory Scottish media references, and not a single online resource is mentioned, including ‘OpenDemocracy’, who Harvie occasionally writes for.
Then there is the hilarious over-statement of Harvie’s role at the centre of history. Apart from citing most of his books and even a dusty old Fabian pamphlet, we learn that it was his half hour TV programme in a BBC ‘Scotland 2000’ series ‘which started the movement for a Scottish Convention’. Well, I’ll be damned, what about poor old Gordon Wilson and ‘A Claim of Right’ people?
The thesis of this book is that the Thatcher-Blair bubble is burst, and with it the Brown attempt to compromise with global capitalism for progressive ends. Unfortunately, Harvie spends a great deal of rhetoric on the former, without ever really exploring the latter.
One is left with a book which isn’t really about Brown or Broonland, but is a strange synthesis of various Harvie writings, many of them about for years. At the book’s conclusion, our tour guide takes us through the ruins of this decaying kingdom, and does not offer us any directions. He obviously believes that the horrors we have seen along the way are enough to convince us of the need to exit forthwith the whole enterprise. Sadly, I think we still need a little more persuasion – and the help of a route map.