Politics as She Is Meant to Be

I'd like to apologise if some sort of bizarre mutation of Petroleum V. Naseby and Mr Dooley seems to have taken over this blog. I wish to write in admiration of the British electorate and a man of steel and pig ignorance worthy of them--Dr J Gordon Brown. Cigars and wine have been taken tonight.

As my one demented reader will know, I have something of a distaste, bordering upon a pathological disregard, for David Cameron. It isn't that I have no time for duplicitous conservatives. I would have preferred Disraeli over Gladstone, and Stuarts over puritans. I once sat on a train near Galway and held forth on how great Harold Macmillan was to people who thanked me for the talk, although of course they were drunk. Nor is it a distaste for former drug abusers that motivates me. I count some of that group amongst my dearest friends. It's more that I do not wish the country in which I live and which has shaped me to be run by Mr Rupert Murdoch, my Lord Ashcroft, and a media-political claque which has spent the best part of the past three years pouring the most vicious sort of scorn on a human tank who meant well.

Years ago, I read the fruits of Gordon Brown's doctoral thesis, a book on Jimmy Maxton, a Clydeside socialist. I discovered it in my first year at Oxford, in the thin and precipitous gallery ring of the old library of the Union, where I was one of the librarians for money. The other members read little, and the meals in the old Macmillan restaurant were free. I could order whatever books I liked and read them at my leisure. Occasionally, we heard of people who sneaked in at night, now members of parliament, to have what passed for sex up there. If the stories were true, their congress was one of the forgettable ones; a Chester Arthur affair, rather than anything Thomas Reed or Tip O'Neill would have had anything to do with. Some of the stories about the more ridiculuous of our modern representatives make me think of things Newt Gingrich would probably have done.

Reading that book, I remember thinking that James Connolly would have been more my cup of tea, or Denis Devlin, at a pinch. Maxton struck me as a haunted character, half Max Wall, half many of the older woman of sorrow whom I had known when growing up in a town the conservatives tried to destroy in the nineteen eighties. His sad, sunken face wasn't that of the working class I belonged to though.

Working people in the seventies, as for some hundred years before, were divided into several groups, a point that the middle classes never quite grasp. The catholic and Irish one from which I came was marked by steelworks and a sort of easy internationalism. On reflection, I think that steelworkers were very different from coalminers, the other princes of the working class. Steelworkers had BMWs, and aspired to villas on the cheap in Spain; their work brought them no necessary closeness, like the men in the mines, but more a sense that they had to live their individual lives. Individuals could be splashed by steel, whereas miners died together.

In Corby, they were an ethnic and religious mix, of Scots, Serbs and Irish. Maxton wouldn't have appealed, in the way that he may have to miners or shipbuilders. What united all three groups, though, was an innate understanding of monopsony--an understanding that, if there were one big employer in an area, then exploitation would be inevitable unless the workers got together. I guess Maxton would have understood that.

The work was, well, workmanlike. It betrayed an author panting to do good, but awkward, and unsure of how such an awkard character as Maxton could ever have thought himself capable of success.

We recognise ourselves in our theses, and let those shades whom we seek to revive change us, a little. My own work, years later, was on a fighting Irish bishop, much responsible for the engaged, dictatorial, and ultimately disastrous sort of immigrant episcopate that New York first brought forth. I never forgot Maxton, though, or Brown.

My second encounter with Brown was a brief and fleeting one; an unspoken invitation, when he was in opposition, to come along to a meeting from one of his occasional satellites, a man destined to become very much embittered. I turned it down, and went off to a monastery in Washington, which--given its rule of hospitality--was my base for my research in that city. I watched the election in 1997 with some white friars there, and patiently explained to them the details of a British election night count. I saw Brown put the Bank of England onto the appearance of independence.

Central banks like appearances, more than maiden aunts or the higher class of prostitute who fill up Washington phonebooks. I think that it is something to do with the innate understanding they have that their game is all show--that, since no one has ever seen a share or touched an interest rate, the picture of things is everything. Part of me likes to imagine the legs of tables in the Bank of England wrapped in Muslin, though I know that that is not the case.

Brown couldn't stop the boom; he didn't tax debt; he wasn't allowed and probably was not inclined to stand against the mad neoliberal consensus that characterised the latter waste of North sea oil. I don't think that the idea occurred to him. Plaudits and resentment probably drove him on. He kept Britain out of the euro, though--until Lisbon, and he seemed to share the innate contempt for most of the political hacks that surrounded Labour in its governing years. I liked him from afar. He reminded me of my brother.

Could have, should have, would have. Had this innately decent man more of the Eden or Macmillan about him, he would have called an election as soon as he became Prime Minister, and then sacked the New Labour crowd. That would have taken what Rab Butler once smacked his lips at, though--a talent for butchery which Brown (more than capable of his own sort of East Scottish brutality) never really had in him. His options were limited; he had followed a sort of seventeenth century fake, and the lies which he had told of necessity in office, about the Private finance initiative, and the derivative boom, and the efficacy of utility in the markets, caught up with him. He was lost before he begun in bloody and unfocussed war.

I lost a little faith, then. I thought that this election may result in his rejection; hoped that it would not, in the face of a neoliberal wolfpack aided by a bought and paid for press. Brown's role, in the minds of the British press and conservative political class, was clear in the past few days. He was to be Al Gore, all quick fixes and nonsense Miami-Dade recounts (itself a product of pussy-boy reliance on experts of the sort that Gore's coping neurosis of global warming was too). He was to go quietly, like Harry Perkins, the broken man in Chris Mullins' forgotten novel.

Except that, he did not. The game that Brown has played in the past few days--and I speak as someone who grew up reading of this sort of thing--was worthy of one of the great criminals of the political profession, a Nixon or an LBJ manoeuvre. I mean that with some admiration. Governments lack justice in this world, and adminstration without justice is a band of thieves. It is permissible to look on their behaviours by the standards of a Dashiell Hammet or Henry Mayhew. The best British politicians know what a Roman or a street thug knows--that no one remembers how well the man who pulled the second knife behaved.

We won't know what went on until the memoirs are published. Things may change by the hour. What I think has happened, however, is that Brown has exploited his constitutional duty and stayed in office; he has then allowed the Conservatives and Liberals to come to what may be seen as their inevitable impasse; he has goaded opponents into self-defeating fury; and he has redeemed himself by sacrificing the remains of the political corpse that he inhabits in the determination not to allow an arrogant group of faux-conservatives back into the destruction of the country when sixty-four per cent of the people voted against them. His legacy may be the rainbow coalition that sent Britain into the second great depression in much better shape than many, and the shortening of the sort of purgatory that Spain endured when it finally gave up on great power.

On the other hand, Cameron's slow-motion coup may gather pace tomorrow. Tant pis, as the French say; good luck with the depression if it does.

English people won't thank Brown for his long game. He cared, though not for flunkies and for those who yearned to join the game without realising that it was all about more than a charade. Some part of Brown did, I think. I think that he was genuinely torn when his private words were broadcast by a Murdoch outlet after he met a woman called Duffy complaining about immigrants.

A woman with an Irish name complaining. I feel some sympathy for her; perhaps she had just not met the displaced persons and Poles whom I have known, or perhaps she saw southern Europeans milking our system as much as southern Europeans might see English people colonising their countries. Who knows? People are strange. My mother is from Donegal, and I have never known anything from her but kindness to those thrown out on earth's extent. Then again, I suppose that the western part of the land of the red hand is, ultimately, the fort of the foreigners.

Brown may be with us for one more summer. This year contains great surprises and pains and pleasures yet, I think. But I wanted to record what I thought of him, tonight. One of my best friends lives in his old flat. When I last visited, it was a modest place, small, and (sadly, though we looked) not possessed of dart holes where the Blair pictures had been on the walls. Brown had worked long hours, and had only had political friends around. John Major lived down the road, in an altogether less modest place.

I've said this four or five times now on this blog. This may well be the last chance I get; Dr J Gordon Brown was worthy of this country. I wish him well.

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