Sunday, January 15, 2006

Gordon Brown tries to escape history's ghosts

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.


peter said...

Thoughtful post. Twice last year I moored in Loyalist fishing villages on the Irish coast - the Union Flags are out all year round, not just on parade days. The kerbstones are painted red, white and blue, and the cars were all red, white or blue. The local yobs go around collecting to buy more flags - extortion by another name.

Brown also has the problem that the media are starting to talk about him not inheriting the crown and increasingly the media set the tone and direction of politics. CK was last week's target, Kelly is this week's. They have a long time to take ranging pot shots at Brown and sow doubt in the minds of the Labour party and the public about whether he's right to succeed.

My prediction is that Brown will inherit following Tony Blair having another health scare sometime in 2006. The 2009 election will - at last! - result in a hung parliament. Then the fun will really start.

Angus J Huck said...

I don't think Brown is being wholly opportunistic here.

Remember that Brown is a Scottish MP who has spent his political life countering the threat from the SNP.

I think he genuinely dislikes what he terms "identity politics" and feels there is a need to pull the disparate parts of the British polity together.

I, too, am horrified by the appropriation of the national flag by far right groups such as the National Front and the BNP. And, indeed, the Ulster loyalists.

Rather ironic, in both cases. The far right seeks inspiration from a German political movement which went to war with Britain. And the Ulster loyalists are not so much loyal to Britain as to themselves.

I agree that a national day would be contrived and possibly ugly.

On the whole, I think, British people feel sufficiently secure in their identity not to yearn for an annual flag-waving fest.

cymrumark said...

Actually I think the Union Jack really sums up the nature of leaves out one of the nations!

Wouldn't it be fantastic just to bury britishness? All that stupid imperial non-sense, the desire to exterminate languages other than English etc. Far better to move towards a group of nations which cooperate with each other and with other partners.

Brown seems to be silent on the issue of MPs from Wales and Scotland voting on English only matters.

Iain said...

Hi Mark

I think it is something of a myth that Britishness was ever really about empire. See 'The absent-minded imperialists' by Bernard Porter.

There is perhaps some evidence to suggest that the Welsh were less enthusiastic supporters of empire than the Scots or the English. Not sure what the Kirby Muxloans thought though.

cymrumark said...

I imagine that the Empire in reality was a bit grim for people who served it. For most people there only experience of it would have been as soldiers or in the navy. Not sure I would have fancied either. I actually think British is as meaningless as European in cultural terms. I have become much more anti British since moving to Wales but that is in response to the vile British nationalism of the Labour party here.....

The good people of Kirby Muxloe never had any truck with the empire nonsense. Most were still hanging around waiting to be paid for almost building the first ever brick castle in 1484 whilst the rest of the Uk was occupied invading Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

I once took a brick layer of my acquaintance on a tour of said castle. Explaining how the local work force never got paid for building the half they finished as Lord Hastings attempted a coup against Good King Richard, failed, and got his head lopped off as a result. Said friendly brick layer indicated this was at least an original excuse for not paying the work force.

Angus J Huck said...

No, the Welsh don't seem to have made much of an impact on the British Empire.

But do have a look at a map of Phildelphia. Just to the west of the city, you will see place-names like Bala, Cynwyd and Bryn Mawr. These are settlements founded by Welsh Quakers invited in by William Penn. (And the Americans pronounce them correctly!)

The Scots played a leading role in the history of Empire. In fact, it was Empire which turned Scotland into an industrial superpower.

Consider the jute industry, which was the making of Dundee (and the Grimond family). Or the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde (where my grandfather was a foreman).

The Scots were heavily represented among the military leaders and colonial administrators. And among the entrepreneurs. Hong Kong was virtually run by Scots.

In fact, it is Empire which bound England and Scotland together as a single entity.

On top of that is the fact that a sizeable chunk of the English middle-class is of Scottish descent (Gladstone is a famous early example).

And you have people like me who are both Scottish and English.

To me, Scottish nationalism is alien and ahistorical.

Scotland was never a single unitary state. Until the English moved in and provided order, it was a lawless, impoverished hellhole on a par with Albania.