Friday, 30 April 2010

All in the mind? The defeat of Gordon Brown

And so we move to the endgame for Gordon Brown. For a Tent in the French Camp, read a Public Hall in Birmingham. Here was an exhausted man, a prematurely ag├Ęd man, grey of face and with red-rimmed eyes, gasping for breath as he spoke, staring with hatred at the young pretender, Cameron, and the younger upstart Clegg, shaking his head and grinning at random his awful, loveless, lifeless grin.
“Pray do not mock me: I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Fourscore and upwards; and, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful: for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments...”

Even were he to win, which now appears impossible, somehow he would still have lost. When one of your own cabinet ministers (the personable Alan Johnson) publicly describes you on the eve of the critical and defining debate as “a politician not of this age,” then surely you’re starting to hear the music of your god’s departure in the air.
Shakespearean analogies come to mind simply because there is something Shakespearean in the tale of a man who is finally trapped and destroyed by the one thing he’s always feared and avoided.
When the Labour Leader John Smith died in May, 1994, Gordon Brown could have challenged Tony Blair and fought for the crown. But instead he preferred a secret deal which snipped out an indenture making him the regent of domestic policy and Blair’s heir presumptive.
When Blair stood down in June, 2007, Gordon Brown could have insisted on a leadership election, which he would undoubtedly have won, making him the undisputed chief. But he didn’t. Instead he allowed his minions to bribe or bully potential contenders away from the field – to which, of course, they eventually returned, whispering malice.
And when, shortly afterwards, he was riding high in the polls and being urged to go for an early election and get his own national mandate, he wavered then flunked it.
When a man avoids the battlefield so much and so often, it can only mean, surely, that he is so terrified of rejection that in his own mind he is already defeated?
Which secret, interior prophecy now appears to be self-fulfilled.
Perhaps someone will, one day, write the book or screenplay which explains what happened in his life, and when, to make this fear take root.
Footnote, May 1: Neither during the stormy campaign of 1992 nor during his terminal tempest in 1997 do I remember John Major conjuring the shade of Margaret Thatcher out of Valhalla to stand at his shoulder. Still, since Campbell and Mandelson, the magicians of Blair’s original victory, are now the restoration men trying the shore up Brown, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that TB is suddenly back centre-stage.
Asked by Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson in this morning’s Times whether he reckons there should have been a leadership election when he stood down in 2007, he replies neither “yes,” nor “no,” but thus:
“I think we all know who would have won that.”
Which is precisely the point I am making in this blog.
An ending with another bit of Shakespeare? Why not –
“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”

For Gordon Blair, the tide was at its fortunate flood three times before. But not this week.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

“Bigotgate”: it’s what happens when you compromise

That confrontation between OAP and PM never happened. That’s the important point to grasp.
“Happen” derives from an old English verb, “to hap” – “to come about by hap or chance,” where the noun “hap” means “chance or fortune (good or bad).”
As in the old rhyme:

Were it to hap that we should meet
In some poor northern town,
Arriving, I would grin and greet,
Departing, curse and frown.

So the meta-story was that Gordon Brown, touring Rochdale, happened upon 66-year-old Mrs Gillian Duffy, a pensioner and widow with whom he happened to have a happy and lively conversation, but in an unhappy sequel, when he thought he was unobserved in his car, he happened inexplicably to lose his temper and call her a “bigoted woman.”
And the real story? Of course, the entire Rochdale excursion was confected for the media, up to and including the meeting with Mrs Duffy, who was propelled into the PM’s presence by his entourage, they having auditioned her on the street and established that she was a salt-of-the-earth Labour supporter who wouldn’t spit in his eye.
Which she didn’t.
He spat in hers, metaphorically, when the car doors were shut and he thought the media circus had been switched off.
The problem is that Gordon doesn’t do “spontaneous,” doesn’t embrace, if you like, encounters and events which “hap.”
But that meant all his campaign appearances to date had been cast, structured and scripted, an artifice of which the audiences were not unaware, since audiences aren’t fools (but are easily bored), and a constraint which made the media restless and tempted to satire.
So, the idea gained force among Gordon’s staffers: “let’s have some spontaneity; let’s find the great man some space in which he can improvise” – and they promptly set about structuring the spontaneity, delimiting the space and trying to script the improvisation.
Gordon, as I say, does not do “spontaneous” – not, I believe, because he is either incapable or frightened of it – but because he knows (or I suspect he knows) that what passes for spontaneity in a modern election is even less genuine than artifice and that, with respect to Mrs Duffy, the kind of person who will come up to you for a “spontaneous” conversation in the street, with a hydra’s tentacles of lenses, lights and gun-mikes weaving around your head, must be conscious that the “happening” is really nothing more or less than a performance.
And that, I think, was why he described his interview with Mrs D as “a disaster” in the car and said “I mean, it’s just ridiculous.” He wasn’t referring to that particular interview. He was saying that all interviews in that genre are ridiculous and will be prone to disaster, because they have no integrity, a quality which, in spite of everything that’s being flung at him, I think he has.
Of course, that doesn’t excuse his calling the poor woman a “bigot” – a cruel epithet which brought the day’s two most poignant images: Mrs Duffy on the street, wounded to the quick, near to tears, and Mr Brown in a BBC Radio studio, head in hand, in despair not just at the hurt he’d caused, but at the fact that he’d caused it by surrendering to a strategy of which he’d all along been sceptical.
The scandal – and I suspect that this may also affront Mr Brown’s moral sensibility – is that when politicians publicly meet non party-card-carrying electors, they use them solely as a means to an end. Brown’s staffers didn’t want him to get to know and listen to and care about Gillian Duffy. They wanted Gillian Duffy to be an instrument to burnish Mr Brown’s image and help him back to Downing Street.
And if Gordon Brown has integrity, so has Mrs Duffy. Despite the paucity of her pension (about which she’d protested to Brown), she turned down a newspaper’s cheque for her “exclusive” story because the deal required her to endorse David Cameron.
So there you have the first paradox. Two people, both possessed of integrity, swept into a degraded media spectacle which in different fashions humiliated them both.
And the second paradox? I think the appeal of Mr Clegg lies not entirely in whatever virtues he may possess, but also in the fact that a lot of electors see him as an instrument: a means to an end, which is punishing and damaging the political establishment.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Election 2010 Emergency Meeting – Worshipful Guild of Media Trainers

A crisis had struck the craft of media training, one which pierced to the very heart of its time-honoured methodologies, and that crisis had dramatically unveiled itself during the first of the UK Party Leaders’ Election Debates, declared the President of the Worshipful Guild of Media Trainers, the Worshipful Bro. A DJING-HACK, at an emergency meeting of the Guild, convened in the snug bar of the Lens & Pen Inn, London EC1.
For many years the craft had rested its practice securely upon on coaching clients to observe the celebrated fourfold formula: “IMPACT-ANECDOTE-ARGUMENT-POINT”, memorably described by one of his [The President’s] late and illustrious predecessors as “the unturnable poignard of media engagement”.
Sist. KNIB asked to be reminded what exactly a “poignard” was?
The President explained that it was a kind of medieval dagger.
Sist. KNIB asked why, then, he [the late President] did not simply say “dagger”?
The President replied that he did not know
Bro GRUB: “What about the Wayzgoose?”
The President pointed out that the itinerary for the Wayzgoose was a matter of ordinary and not extraordinary business, and if he might continue to develop his theme, he wished to point out how signally, in the case of each leader at the debate, the anecdote portion of the equation, which his predecessor had called “the beating heart of an unbeatable monologue,” had failed. For example, Mr BROWN had said:
“I talked to a chef the other day who was training. I said in future, when we do it, there'll be no chefs allowed in from outside the European Union.”
Bro. SCRIVER: “When we do what, exactly?”
Bro. SQUINK: “Bang go our biryanis...”
The President continued with a quotation from Mr CAMERON:
“I went to a Hull police station the other day. They had five different police cars, and they were just about to buy a £73,000 Lexus.”
Bro. SCRIVER: “Well, if he doesn’t win he can always get a job with Glass’s Guide...”
The President then added a quotation from Mr CLEGG:
“I was in a hospital, a paediatric hospital in Cardiff a few months ago, treating very sick premature young babies. I was being shown around and there were a large number of babies needing to be treated. There was a ward standing completely empty, though it had the latest equipment.”
Several Worshipful Bros & Sists: “did you know Clegg was a paediatrician?” ... “lucky for him the ward was empty” ... “wonder how he got on treating them?”
Bro. GRUB: The Wayzgoose!
The President, deploying the gavel, said he appreciated that some members were in an impatient and others in a facetious mood, his assistant having erroneously posted the wrong time for the meeting, thus summoning them two hours too early to the bar, but nevertheless he would like to concentrate on the critical issue, viz, whether the widespread mockery and scepticism with which the three leaders’ anecdotes had been received suggested that this foundational segment of the formula was now, not to put too fine a point on it, “shot through and sunk.”
Sist. KNIB said that politicians were always the exception that proved the rule, seeing as how there hadn’t been one since Margaret THATCHER or the late Michael FOOT who’d been capable of stringing sentences into a coherent paragraph or looking folk straight in the eye or opening their mouths without telling blatant porkies.
Bro. SCRIVER, after helping Bro. GRUB up from the floor and onto a chair, said that what you had in the leaders’ debate was a tattered grey parrot, an anxious jackdaw and a startled mynah bird, each perched on his lectern and squawking the phrases which had been dinned into them without the faintest comprehension of structure, meaning or intent – and it showed.
But Sist. MAGGS begged to demur. Mr CLEGG, she said, had fetched up a very telling anecdote. Not the line he’d been fed by his advisers about the sick babies and the empty ward, but, in an exchange with Mr BROWN, this one [consulting notebook]:
GORDON BROWN: I want an MP to be elected with more than 50 per cent of the vote, and I want a House of Lords that is not hereditary but elected on a proportional representation list system. That's what we want to put to a referendum next year.
NICK CLEGG: I'm absolutely dismayed by this. This is something I actually put forward in the House of Commons. We already could have had that law, people already could have had the right to sack corrupt MPs. Labour MPs voted against it. Conservative MPs didn't turn up.

And members of the Guild should also note, Sist. MAGGS continued, that Mr CLEGG had also very effectively "stepped through the proscenium":
NICK CLEGG: I'm not sure if you're like me, but the more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.
On a show of hands, members of the Guild voted to retain the formula, but to keep it under constant review.
The President said he was relieved, because if their media training paradigm had indeed collapsed, members would have had no alternative but to call a special conference and reconstruct their methodologies “ab origine.”
Sist. MAGGS said maybe the media training paradigm hadn’t collapsed, but maybe the two-party political paradigm had. Members should watch the ensuing debates with close interest.
The Guild then discussed arrangements for its midsummer Wayzgoose, and there being no other business, the meeting adjourned at 10:30 p.m.
Note to Editors: all quotations from the April 15 Leaders’ Debate are taken verbatim from the BBC Transcript of the broadcast.

Monday, 12 April 2010

On spring, sapphires and electoral silence

We walked for six hours, at first beside a narrow river and then climbing high into the Chiltern Hills. When we set off, there were scarcely any leaves on the trees, but the sun blazed and temperatures climbed, and by evening buds had opened and shoots had shot, butterflies were dancing, fish jumping, and the world was sprinkled green and bright.
It was as if, at last, someone had found the keys to the kennel and the hounds of Spring, unleashed, had burst out in a frenzy.
I’m picking books at random off the shelves, at present, letting my fingers make the choice for a re-reading. Before the walk, last Thursday morning, they reached me down for my journeys on the underground the formidable American critic Harold Bloom’s Kabbalah and Criticism.
These fingers, perhaps, are curious to see whether their mental equivalents have more luck grasping the meaning of the book than they did first time around (A: only a little).
Bloom writes of the Sefirot (the interlinking orbs of the great figure), that the derivation of the word...
“... would seem to suggest the Greek ‘sphere,’ but its actual source was the Hebrew word sappir (for ‘sapphire’), and so the term referred primarily to God’s radiance. [Professor Gershom] Scholem gives a very suggestive list of Kabbalistic synonyms for the Sefirot: sayings, names, lights, powers, crowns, qualities, stages, garments, mirrors, shoots, sources, primal days, aspects, inner faces, and limbs of God.”
After two pints of Badger, bare head baking in the afternoon sun, up there in the Chilterns, it felt as if we were experiencing something like that. Or those.
This was a company of just three: men of passable intelligence and reasonable curiosity, attuned enough to natural and human affairs.
But what struck me as we parted was that not once, during all those hours together, had any of us mentioned the General Election which Gordon Brown had called a couple of days before.
Neither had anyone in any conversation overheard on underground or overground, or in the crowded pub where we paused for lunch.
Nor did anyone at a supper party two nights later.
Yes, there is all the redounding spout and spume of reportage, verbiage and commentary coming at us from journalism. But elsewhere, or so it strikes me, this is the election that no-one wants to talk about.
Which is suggestive, because after all, everywhere you went before the great climacteric of 1997, when Blair’s New Labour obliviated Major’s Tories, that election was the fizz and buzz of conversation.
It seems we have a new version of two nations here. One consists of the politicians and their colonies of advisers and PR people and bag-carriers, plus the hapless scriveners who are doomed like creatures in a modern Grimm’s fairy tale to spin out more and more and more words to fill the huge and ever-growing caverns of time and space that modern technology has got them (usually by the generation, analysis, serialisation and syndication of bullshit).
And then there’s the rest of us. Turned away, and trying not to mention the 2010 hustings at all.
I suspect the reason is in all in the ethics of the dialogue. By which I mean this: that the way the Labour party, and thence the others, have been abusing the language since 1997, defiling its wellsprings with cynical manoeuvres of spin, distortion, lies and wicked, furtive “briefings”, twisting words to mean what they want them to mean and all the while supposing that their audiences are idiots – that this has left the rest of us, in the other nation, unconsciously or even consciously aware that contact with political discourse is contaminating; that like a cigarette packet, a politician’s manifesto should be emblazoned with some ghastly picture of a diseased organ – maybe a human soul – and a message: “Warning – Politspeak Can Seriously Harm You And Those Around You.”
And a helpline number to a recording of, perhaps, Simon Callow reading Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defence of Poetry.
Our greatest British critic, Terry Eagleton, about as hard-headed an individual as you could find, uses a surprising Biblical analogy to describe political and commercial language. It is, he says, “fallen” – “bleared and smudged with trade, degraded to a mere instrument.”
Which takes me back across the Atlantic to Mr Bloom:
“The Sefirot are primarily language, attributes of God that need to be described by the various names of God when he is at work in creation... At first the Kabbalists dared to identify the Sefirot with the actual substance of God, and the Zohar goes so far as to say of God and the Sefirot: ‘He is They and They are He,’ which produces the rather dangerous formula that God and language are one and the same...”
Steady there. But maybe, all the same, we do need some sort of preventive sign we can make (besides fingers in ears) to ward off evil when we hear a politician speaking.
Footnote 1: in The Times this weekend Ginny Dougary insists that Gordon Brown is a man of depths. Perhaps that’s his problem? A deep man gasping in the shallowness of politics? And I think it isn’t only a love of paradox on my part that makes me immediately think of David Cameron as a shallow man who’s getting out of his depth.
Footnote 2: this morning my daughter told me that she’d had a dream about Nick Clegg (the Liberal party leader). The content was vague, but this is probably a first for any teenage girl – and for Mr Clegg.