Where Blair had God, Brown has only Branson
Not fit for purpose? No, this government is in permanent crisis because it has no idea what its purpose might be.
Tony Blair now says that his deep Christian beliefs were what gave him the strength of character to be UK prime minister for a decade: ‘For me, having faith was an important part of being able to do that.’ Whatever we might think of religion and politics, at least Blair had God to turn to in his moments of crisis. By contrast, as Gordon Brown seeks to scramble free from the rubble of Northern Rock, it now appears that all Blair’s successor has to fall back on is Richard Branson.
In interviews for the BBC series The Blair Years, the former New Labour premier has admitted that he tended to hide the strength of his religious convictions from the British public, for fear of being labelled ‘a nutter’. So it would appear that Blair did have some firm convictions to hide, even if he was embarrassed about them. By that standard, Brown would seem to have very little to be embarrassed about. There seems to be little in the way of deeply-held convictions in Brown’s closet to guide him through the multiple crises now afflicting his fledgling government – unless it is a faith in the powers of thumb-twiddling and mumbling.
Whatever his hidden beliefs might be, Brown is doing a superb job of concealing them from the electorate, as his plunging opinion poll ratings reflect. Never mind having the faith to win three elections and last a decade in office, questions are already being raised about whether anybody has sufficient faith in Brown for him to make it to his first General Election.
As Northern Rock and ‘Discgate’ are followed by the resignation of the Labour Party general secretary in another party funding scandal, the Conservatives have announced that the New Labour government is ‘now officially in crisis’ (and let’s face it, the Tories should recognise a government in meltdown when they see one).
Yet none of these problems is necessarily the stuff to push Brown to political crisis point. Northern Rock? A big deal, but his government did not cause the debacle; even the arrogant Brown might have to concede that the credit crunch in the global finance markets was beyond his control. The indecisive reaction of Brown and his chancellor Alastair Darling certainly made matters worse, but it is hard to see how the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats would have fared any better.
Discgate? Losing two child benefit CDs with the personal and financial details of millions of British families was certainly a breathtaking administrative cock-up of the first order. But despite all the talk of it as a political turning point, losing a couple of discs hardly compares to, say, losing a war over Suez, or losing a battle with militant miners – the sort of political setbacks that have brought down prime ministers in the past.
Party funding scandal? Some baby-faced Labour Party apparatchik whom few had heard of opts to resign because a builder from Newcastle gave the party some money through third parties. It is hard to imagine that many voters are awake, far less outraged, as the dull details of this one unravel.
Yet this collection of problems has somehow come together to create an air of crisis and incompetence around Brown’s government. The reason has less to do with the size of the problems themselves, than with the government’s critical shortage of the political, intellectual and moral resources required to cope with them and give the impression that it is still leading the nation. Brown is in crisis because he cannot demonstrate that he is in charge.
The problem here goes much deeper than a few bad headlines. It relates straight back to the point about Brown’s lack of beliefs. To describe something as ‘not fit for purpose’ has become something of a catchphrase in political circles. But the bigger shortcoming is that Brown’s government has little notion of what its purpose might be in the first place. In the absence of any overarching political principles or vision for society, all they have left are the odd PR stunt and the day-to-day business of crisis management.
It is in these insecure circumstances that every relatively minor technical problem can quickly turn into a full-blown crisis of confidence. When your appeal to the public is based not on putting a case for your convictions but on your banal claim to managerial and book-keeping competence, then any administrative setback can make you look like a phoney.
Brown’s apologists have tried to claim that this accumulation of technical problems has been getting in the way of him outlining his grand vision. But this is getting things the wrong way around. It is the absence of a unifying vision and sense of purpose that makes it impossible for the government to rise above everyday difficulties and move on. When the major initiative that the prime minister offers us in his week of crisis is to declare war on plastic carrier bags, we can be fairly certain that it is not the media’s obsession with scandal and trivia that is preventing him moving the debate on to bigger things. ‘Wait goes on for Brown’s vision’, as one wry BBC commentator put it this week.
Of course the contrast with Blair that I began with is not really that clear. In many ways Brown is reaping the harvest of what he helped his predecessor to sow. The whole New Labour project was founded upon the rejection of old Labour’s outdated principles. But they had little to replace these with other than the politics of image, personality, character and competence. That did not matter so much in the early years, when to be ‘New’ was usually enough to deal with the decrepit Tories and the spotlight-loving Blair was the master of the public stage. With Brown, however, the novelty has quickly worn off and revealed him as ill-equipped to win the sort of personality battle that is now often called a ‘political beauty contest’.
So what has he to fall back on in his hour of need? It might make many smile, or sneer, to think of Blair – as Peter Mandelson reveals in that same BBC documentary series – reading the Bible in bed last thing every night. But what might we imagine Brown reading under pressure now? Apart from some relaxing economic statistics, he gives the impression that he is most likely obsessively re-reading his own bad headlines and, in the immortal words of the late Spike Milligan, ‘clutching and unclutching his fists under the bedclothes’.
And so it came to pass that, when the problems over Northern Rock reached crisis point, Brown’s government turned to Saint Richard of Branson to bail them out. The idea is that, while people might not trust politicians farther than we can throw them (and that’s not far), hopefully the public’s admiration for Sir Richard – always far higher in the polls than any statesman – will overcome the doubts.
The ‘rescue bid’ for Northern Rock by Branson’s Virgin Money looks rather like a government-backed carpet-bagging operation, where a company with a big name but small assets buys a big and profitable book of mortgage assets on the cheap. But if such a deal can be done the Treasury will doubtless support it, in the hope that Branson’s aura of glamour and goodness will calm public jitters. So a prime minister who came to office just months ago promising an end to celebrity politics already ends up looking to one of the UK’s foremost celebrity capitalists – those who are more successful at promoting themselves than selling their products – to bail out the government. After all, a celebrity can almost always command more authority than a cabinet minister today.
This is not just a crisis of New Labour, but of British politics. The Conservatives have been yelling ‘incompetence’ at every turn, trying to blow up every problem facing the government into a vote of confidence on Brown. Yet David Cameron has no more in the way of vision or answers than he does. Luckily for them, however, the Conservatives are not in government and so out of the firing line. Were things the other way around, Cameron would be the one governing via the politics of permanent crisis-management.
With the bright glare of Blair now removed, the emptiness of political life stands starkly revealed, as some of us suggested it soon would be. That is why Brown has been reduced to a quivering wreck by the sort of problems that a government with a sense of where it was going could ride out. If he meets a real crisis – God help him, he hasn’t got a prayer…
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Mick Hume noted that, as predicted on spiked, Gordon Brown’s media honeymoon didn’t last, and said ‘Bottler Brown’ is the PM British politics deserves. Brendan O’Neill listed 10 reasons why Gordon Brown is unfit to be prime minister. David Chandler asked why Gordon Brown hates politics. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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