AUGUST 12, 2009
Gordon Brown has now been British prime minister for two years. This is hard to credit, partly because he has not fully emerged from the detachable Peter Pan shadow of Tony Blair, but mainly because he has not yet emerged from his own. He walks in a deep, impenetrable penumbra of his own making.
Luck has had something to do with this. The opportunity to strike a chord with the public has not arisen. He hasn't had a Diana moment, as Tony Blair did, or a Falklands moment, as saved Margaret Thatcher when her popularity was at a low ebb. But it's also a matter of temperament. Brown--one might say to his credit--would never have mourned Diana as the "People's Princess," nor, had he been prime minister when the British retook a small island in the South Atlantic Ocean, would he have told the nation to "rejoice."
Lacking populist instincts ought not to be considered a failing in a prime minister, even in the age of television, but trying for the common touch when you don't have it is an unpardonable folly. Brown's recent charm offensive, culminating in an attempt to smile himself into the people's affections via YouTube--grinning like a village idiot in love while discussing MPs' second-home allowances--has made even his most loyal supporters cringe. You cannot buy the love of an electorate.
The praise that Brown has received internationally for his handling of the banking crisis has been echoed only fitfully in this country. Economic competence wins over minds, not hearts. Thomas Carlyle called political economy the "dismal science." In the ten years he worked at Blair's shoulder, successfully keeping the books, ensuring that the City flowed with Klug, Brown was gloriously, triumphantly dismal--the only person in London, it sometimes seemed, not partying. This is what you want from a chancellor of the exchequer: the colorless efficiency of a chartered accountant. And Brown had the air of a man who'd been up all night entering numbers in a column.
At first, after a decade of Tony Blair's irrepressible, quicksilver self-satisfaction, a dismal prime minister, too lugubrious and lubberly to be evasive, seemed the answer to the country's prayers. They had been a double act--comic and straight man. And we'd had enough of the comic. Fair play came into it as well. It was widely believed that the two men had struck a deal that, if they ever made it to high office, they would share the spoils. Me first, no you. But Blair had liked it too much to part with. The years went by. And all along, in the dismal gloaming, Brown nursed his thwarted genius, convinced he could prance as airily as Tony if only Tony would give way. And then, Tony did.
After all the years of facile smiling, it was good to have a prime minister to whom no smile came easily and for whom a laugh, when he remembered there was such a thing, was as a cry of pain. The Guardian journalist Michael White has said that Brown laughs volcanically to hide his shyness. I was on the receiving end of that faux laughter once. "You're the writer, aren't you?" he said when we were introduced, and then, "Well, keep on writing," he erupted when we parted. Unable to find any retort the equal in inanity, I laughed volcanically back.
Where Blair had been mercurial and lithe, Brown was immovable, as square and sinuous as a house. Blair had been a great waver; Brown cannot manage a wave to save his life. On the day of the historic handover, the parliamentary sketch-writer Simon Hoggart noticed him trying to lift an "unwilling arm" to greet those gathered to congratulate him, but he succeeding only in raising a hand "to hip height, as if patting a passing horse." Since then, the British public has learned how it feels to be the horse that Brown patted.
But still, we reserved our judgment. Awkwardness of manner answers to something in the British psyche. We trust it, believing it betokens forthrightness and sincerity. Brown was born in Glasgow, 58 years ago, studied for a Ph.D. in history at Edinburgh University, and was an MP first for East Dunfermline and, later, for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. These are impeccable Scottish connections, suggestive at once of old-fashioned socialism, thrift, and, of course, the Presbyterian church. A true son of the manse, he refers frequently to his "moral compass" and to the architect of that morality, his father, the Reverend John Brown, one-time minister at St. Brycedale Church.
Blair spoke publicly of God. He had us believe they talked together--Blair and God, that is, not Blair and Brown--on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. God was for it, seemed to be the suggestion. Brown gives the impression of being more moralist than mystic, more driven by socialist principle than divine inspiration. In this, he loses out both ways: Not only has he, yet again, chosen the more dismal option, he has also turned a moral spotlight on his administration which, as fresh charges of petty fiddling appear in the newspapers every day, would seem not to have a principle in its body.
In fairness to Brown, New Labour was looking pretty dog-eared when he took it over from Tony Blair. Iraq was Blair's and God's baby, though Brown had backed it. Ditto long-standing controversial legislation regarding the detention of terrorism suspects. And, for years, there had been questions about who was covertly donating how much to New Labour. Blair was seen to have cozied up to Big Business, and one Big Businessman after another had popped up at the wrong time ever since New Labour was elected. When Blair stepped down, New Labour was an unweeded garden that had grown to seed. This Brown inherited. It remained to be seen how much of a gardener he was.
The answer: No sort of gardener at all. He did not know what to tear up and what to plant. He had no instinct for the seasons, talking of calling an early election and then running scared. Away from the dusty ledgers of the economy, he lacked authority and decision. Instead of the compassionate society he had promised, he raised the lowest rate at which the poor paid tax; instead of cleaning up the murky anti-terrorism legislation cobbled together after September 11, as was expected, he backed extending the period for which suspects could be detained; his decision to draw attention from the Tory Party conference by dropping in on British troops in Iraq was electioneering in the worst of taste.
Suddenly, his unwieldiness stopped striking us as funny. A tragedy was unfolding. It wasn't only the job he wasn't up to, it was his own idea of himself. He had been deluded. Most men are spared discovering how far short they fall of their self-image; they end their lives imagining what might have been if only fortune had been kinder. Brown's tragedy was that he'd been granted what he'd publicly coveted all his career, but, when the stage was finally and, as he believed, rightfully his, he fluffed his lines. And so, we asked the unaskable: Had he worn away his gifts in enmity, the man in the shadows waiting, waiting, or had he never really been there at all?
A now infamous joke tipped Brown into ridicule. Impatient with his dithering, yet again, in the matter of secret donations to the party, the Liberal Democrat MP Vincent Cable used Prime Minister's Question Time to describe Brown's "remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr. Bean." That Vincent Cable is a civil, mild-mannered, crestfallen man, only added to the torture. We couldn't even pity Brown's falling to a deadly assassin.
As the joke revealed more and more cruel felicities, the House laughed as though it meant never to stop. At a stroke, Brown was derided for the austere socialist heavyweight he had aspired to be, and for failing so spectacularly to be it. From Stalin to Mr. Bean is some descent. We heard Mr. Has-Been in the joke, and Mr. Never-Was. Blair might have laughed it off; Brown's face collapsed.
Mr. Bean's best-known misadventure has him with his head stuck up the unsavory end of a Christmas turkey. It is hard now to see Gordon Brown any other way. He has recently survived desperately bad local and European election results, a number of murmuring challenges to his premiership, and the scandal of MPs' expenses. But few expect him to win a general election. In a last bid to court popularity, he has packed himself around with celebrities from the world of reality television, inviting the judges of "Britain's Got Talent" and the host of "Strictly Come Dancing" to dinner. He is, as was Blair before him, a deeply uncultured man. It is regrettable that he should see salvation in making a virtue of that. At least when he was dismal, he seemed serious. His dismalness, he appears to think, is his only flaw. In this, he is tragically mistaken. His dismalness is his greatest virtue. His flaw is to suppose he can, and should, pass himself off as something lighter, someone more like Tony. Thus, Tony goes on exacting his terrible revenge.
Howard Jacobson is the author, most recently, of The Act of Love.