On Gordon Brown

Was he too smart to succeed? That might be overstating it: there’s still room for very intelligent political leaders. Yet what unites the sharpest of them—Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Manmohan Singh—is a certain professorial detachment. They are all pragmatists, post-ideological to varying degrees, adept at compromise and unfailingly serene, in Obama’s case sometimes worryingly so.


Nobody in Britain was really surprised to see Gordon Brown march right back into Downing Street after Thursday’s inconclusive election. The prime minister, we have known for years, is just too tough to die. People compared him to Rasputin, but St. Catherine might be the more appropriate analogy. Bank failures and the worst recession since the 1930s; a baroque expenses scandal, with MPs billing the taxpayer for home renovations and pornography; three separate coup attempts by his own ministers determined to force him out; years of anemic poll ratings; multiple family upheavals, including the death of his infant daughter; press even more brutal than normal from Britain’s mangy tabloids: he bore it all, more certain with each trial that he was right. By 2010 he’d gained weight—hard to remember he was the country’s “most eligible bachelor” in 1997—and the job had exhausted him, yet he soldiered through this election and made what ought to have been a rout into the closest-run contest since 1974.

But finally, today or tomorrow, the big man will have to go. The British have lately embraced the Internet as political coffee house or stinking pub (London has the world’s most Twitter users per capita, and hacks charmingly refer to a new blog post as “my latest blog”), and you can head there to read all about the Tory future and the flawed electoral system, or get the latest odds on the next election that’s sure to come in a year or less. I could give you my opinion, but though I’m an off-and-on Londoner I’m not British, and besides, the fall of Gordon Brown seems to mark an occasion bigger than politics. It is the winding up of an era: of the experiment of New Labour, but more importantly of a certain kind of leadership, a certain political style.

For Brown was a grand-scale, 19th-century politician in an age and a system that needs them but doesn’t want them. A Scot with a Ph.D. in history, the author of six books, imbued with the moral seriousness of his preacher father, he came as a relief after the hollow Englishman who led his country to Crawford, then Baghdad. And his moment had come, perversely, or so it seemed. A few months into the top job he witnessed a real-life bank run (they will queue for anything in Britain), followed of course by the near-collapse of much of the rest of the financial sector. At the height of the crisis, while Washington fretted ineffectually over TARP, he and his chancellor Alistair Darling quickly part-nationalized several major banks. It became the template for financial rescues the world over, leading Paul Krugman, on the day he won the Nobel Prize, to proclaim Brown the savior of the world. In the months that followed, culminating in the London G20 summit, he kept it up, leading the shotgun conversion of the world’s neoliberals into Keynesian big spenders—a major achievement even if, to trot out the old Irish joke, we shouldn’t have started from here.1

The demands of mediatized national politics aren’t like those of statesmanship, however, and Brown, all sides agreed, had almost none of the skills needed for the daily slog of contemporary democracy. Last year, amid daily revelations of MPs’ expensing new furniture or five-figure gardening bills, Brown posted a YouTube video to show he was “listening” to citizens’ outrage. Some bright adviser must have told him that voters love an optimist, because the lugubrious prime minister started flashing an ecstatic grin in the most inappropriate sections; he looked not just out of place but a bit mentally imbalanced. The other moment, so awful it made The Daily Show, was during the campaign, when he called a Labour supporter “bigoted” (she’d asked him about “all these Eastern Europeans flocking here”) on a hot microphone. Revealingly, that error came during a rant to an adviser about the “disaster” he’d just endured—Brown failed to notice that the meet-and-greet with the supporter had in fact gone very well. Yet even when he played the public role right, a disaster could always be invented. In one memorable case, he submitted to a chat with the parenting website Mumsnet, where someone asked him what his favorite cookie was and he failed to answer. The next day it was “Biscuitgate,” complete with a banner headline on page one of the London Times.2

Nobody expected him to have Blair’s command of the mediascape; the British always saw him as dour. (Though listen to George W. Bush, who pointed out at their first joint press conference that the allegedly “dour Scotsman” was in fact a “glass-half-full man.”) But Brown’s seriousness was not just unhelpful, it was actively counterproductive to his career. While he was giving 20-minute interviews on Afghanization to the BBC or laying out proposed constitutional changes with references to Locke and Mill, people started to speak of Brown as incompetent—a ridiculous but telling reversal. Voters, justifiably angry at a yearlong recession with complex causes, concluded that the country’s troubles and Brown’s personal shortcomings (just pick a biscuit!) were one and the same. His intelligence and his solidity had been infected. His crime wasn’t that he had mismanaged the economy so much as that he looked like the economy.

Was he too smart to succeed? That might be overstating it: there’s still room for very intelligent political leaders. Yet what unites the sharpest of them—Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Manmohan Singh—is a certain professorial detachment. They are all pragmatists, post-ideological to varying degrees, adept at compromise and unfailingly serene, in Obama’s case sometimes worryingly so. Gordon Brown was never like that. At home he was a bruiser, and his temper reached Gothic extremes, if you believe the stories: cell phones and even a laser printer flung across the desk, car seats punctured, a secretary shoved from her chair. But that temper went hand-in-hand with a belief that enormous work had to be done—“serious times need serious people,” as he said—and small-scale media-glare governance was getting in the way. He wanted a Tobin tax, a new UN and World Bank, multilateral third-world development, a climate change deal. He didn’t get any of them, but who else tried?

Indeed it now seems that no politician can meet both the exigencies of global governance and the legitimate demands of national citizens. There will be no more Bismarcks. Instead we are headed for a world in which democratic leaders, even of Obama’s caliber, realize that image curation and popular gesture are a full-time job, while immense policy decisions fall increasingly to civil servants, central bankers, transnational apparatchiks, and, worst of all, leaders of the “business community.” This is hazardous not just to democratic legitimacy but to global society itself: the stricken system will just keep on metastasizing, and nobody will think through the new forms and institutions this crisis-beset world so plainly requires. Gordon Brown could think like that, but he is leaving us, and we will not see his like again.

  1. An old farmer is repairing a fence at a crossroads deep in rural Ireland when a shiny car pulls up. “Excuse me,” asks the driver, “can you tell me how to get to Galway?” The farmer looks up to the sky, strokes his beard, and sighs. “Well, begorra,” says the farmer, “if you’re going to Galway I wouldn’t start from here.” 

  2. He did learn from his mistakes; in the last week of the election, when he returned to Mumsnet, he said in his first message: “Great to be back, enjoying a chocolate biscuit, ready to go.” 

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