Gordon Brown’s speech advocating a revival of Britishness and a Union Jack is an attempt to demonstrate that he too has a vision for the country that goes beyond number-cruching and partisan politics. Unfortunately, it feels contrived and vulgar. It brings to mind John Major’s cones hotline and citizen’s charter. Like Major, Brown is trying to escape from the shadow of his predecessor without being overtly disloyal.
The only time I have ever seen Union Jacks displayed prominently in front gardens was in a protestant district of Belfast on the day of a Rebublican-organised march. It made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. It is a great pity that the Union Jack, which should be a symbol of unity between different nations and cultures, has become the preserve of the far right in Britain and an emblem of sectarian tension in Northern Ireland. But Brown’s wish for overt displays of patriotism is pointless and cheap. Since there would be massive resistance to turning Remembrance Sunday into a celebration rather than a commemoration, another date would have to be found for ‘British Day’ that would have little or no resonance with the public.
I suspect Brown is trying too hard to appear statesmanlike rather than the fiercely partisan political obsessive that he is. The reason for this is that the historical omens do not look good for a Brown premiership. That is no doubt why he has an action plan for the first 100 days as prime minister and is making speeches like the one yesterday.
Brown is known to detest the comparison between himself and Anthony Eden where the person who had been the clear second figure in the government succeeded to the office but failed in the job. There are other precedents too, which are not good for Brown. Neville Chamberlain was the obvious and unchallenged successor to Stanley Baldwin in 1937. He had waited a long time to become PM and felt himself better-fitted to the role. He was out of office within three years – unlucky, perhaps to be in power at the time when the appeasement policy that both he and Baldwin supported was discredited. Likewise, in 1903 Arthur Balfour was the automatic successor to his uncle Lord Salisbury. He led the party that had won two successive landslide victories to its (then) greatest ever electoral defeat.
The precedents are not good either where there is more of a contest to follow successful leaders. Rosebery, Callaghan and Douglas-Hume all took over from long-serving leaders and took their parties to defeat. The only one to buck this trend and win an election was John Major – hardly the role model whom Brown would wish to follow.
The next problem that Brown faces is that governing parties whose electoral position starts to slide are rarely able to turn the tide. This was true of the Conservatives in 1987/92/97 and Labour in 19050/51. Going further back, the Liberals won their great landslide in 1906, had their majority reduced in 1910 and then never won another election.
Lastly, the most successful leaders have tended to be the ones who appear to rise above mere party politics and appear the right choice for the nation as a whole. In the last hundred years there have been three party leaders who have won three elections for their party – Baldwin, Thatcher and Blair. The first and last of these managed to appear as non-partisan, unifying figures. The same cannot be said of Margaret Thatcher of course, but she conveyed a sense of being on a mission to rescue the country from going to the dogs. The Conservative Party was merely her instrument for achieving this. Brown, by contrast, is a dour party loyalist who cannot hide his contempt for political opponents.
While it is possible to argue about the detail of any of the above examples, it is nonetheless true that there are no positive precedents for a successful Brown premiership. I don’t know whether he will be able to re-write the script, but hare-brained ideas such as this one will only reinforce doubts about his vision and judgement.