Gordon Brown is all substance and no style.
We know this to be true because lots of people say it over and over. It’s said by his admirers (“unlike You Know Who” they often add) and by his detractors, who deem him insufficiently image-friendly for modern, media-driven politics.
His final speech to Parliament on Thursday confounded this axiom. Brown was all substance but he carried it off with real flair. His rhetoric was passionate and personal, reminding those of us generally cynical about his contributions to politics that he is a real person with sincere beliefs.
When he announced last December that he would not stand for re-election to the Commons, I strove to marshal my array of mixed feelings towards Brown into a cogent analysis of his political career. The best I could manage was to describe him as a“moral romantic”, my attempt to capture the religious and economic influences that compliment one another in Brown’s political worldview.
He is a believing Christian and a churchgoer who “does God”, if in a humbler fashion than his predecessor. His public displays of faith are not in the fashion of American presidential candidates, whose idea of introducing new people to the Gospel is inviting CNN along every time they go to church.
From his speeches and his writings, it is clear Brown’s political programme is imbued by Christian commitment and vice versa. His speeches as prime minister were peppered with references to the parable of the good Samaritan who came to the aid of a man robbed on the road to Jericho. “We will not walk by on the other side,” Brown was fond of booming with a righteous scowl in the direction of the Tories. It was never clear if he considered them the modern-day priests, Levites — or the robbers.
Government was a means to an end and his mission was to create a society that loved not in word or talk but in deed and truth.
The last words that will appear under his name in Hansard were forged by that same alloy of Christianity and Labour politics. The Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath MP used his final speech to restate his case in the progressive interest:
“All societies need a moral energy that can inspire individuals to the self-sacrificial acts of public service that come alive out of mutual respect and obligation, and can turn impersonal buildings and anonymous streets made only of stone and concrete into vibrant, sharing communities.”
He added: ‘‘For I sense millions of us feel, however distantly, the pain of others, and believe in something within ourselves, beyond ourselves and bigger than ourselves that can lead us to work for causes greater than ourselves. And so we cannot easily feast when our fellow citizens go hungry to food banks; we cannot feel at ease when our neighbours – in hock to payday lenders – are ill at ease; and cannot be fully content when, with poverty pay and zero-hour contracts, there is around us so much discontent.
‘‘It’s not anti-wealth to say that the wealthy must do more to lift up those who are not wealthy. It’s not anti-enterprise to say the enterprising must do more to meet the aspirations of those who have never had the chances to show that they too are enterprising. And it’s not anti-market to say that markets need morals to underpin their success.”
Let’s dispense with niceties like “social justice” and “social democracy”. This was a homily for socialism. (Labour is not allowed to talk about socialism anymore because it no longer advocates policies that other parties have never advocated.)
It wasn’t the socialism of Clause Four or government by union baron. That old, cold technocratic socialism is dead and buried and good riddance. It was a socialism of caring, sharing, compassion, and fairness; a socialism to which even those who don’t consider themselves socialists could sign up.
This wasn’t a repudiation of New Labour, that much-maligned and universally misunderstood project, but a vindication of its original purpose: To elect a Labour government which would, once in power, embed progressive politics in Britain for a generation.
That it did this only to mixed success does not invalidate the project. When Brown left Downing Street in 2010, he (and Tony Blair) left behind a country that was fairer, more democratic, and more at ease with itself than they found it.
I can already hear the imprecations from those on the Left (and those who think they’re on the Left) that Brown was a Tory, a Thatcherite, a traitor to real Labour values. While there is undoubtedly a principled Left prosecution to be made against New Labour, so much of the carping comes from bitter impossibilists with little interest in winning elections. They would prefer the impotent purity of opposition to the messy business of government.
The world and the rest of the UK will remember him as a successful Chancellor and a failed Prime Minister. But in Scotland his legacy will always be coloured by his eleventh-hour intervention in the independence referendum. His brokering of The Vow and an energetic speech the day before the vote either saved the Union or betrayed Scotland, depending on your constitutional leanings.
But he closed his parliamentary career not with a declamation against Scottish nationalism but with a warning against English nationalism and playing politics with the constitution.
He told the House: “I sense that the UK today is fragile, it is at risk and we are potentially at a point of departure.
‘‘Countries at their best, their strongest, their truest, are more than places on the map, more than a demarcation of borders. Great countries stand on shared foundations. They are guided by unifying ideals. They move forward in common purpose. And so it must be with Britain.”
Whatever constitutional arrangements the UK decides upon in the coming years, he pledged to “fight and fight and fight again to renew and reconstruct for a new age the idea of Britain around shared values can bring us together and advance a common Britishness”. This, he said, should include a commitment to tolerance, liberty, and fairness as embodied in the NHS and the impulse towards social justice.
To this end, he excoriated the Tories’ designs for “English votes for English laws”, which would “create two classes of elected representatives” and served only to “mimic the nationalists by driving a wedge between Scotland and England”. In moving thus to see off the threat of Ukip, the governing party was in fact pursuing “English laws for English votes”.
It was stirring stuff and classic Brown: A progressive vision expressed with moral fire and a bit of Tory-bashing thrown in to spice up the proceedings. Had he delivered oratory like this every day as Prime Minister, he would still have been monstered by the Tory press but it would have been less of a chore for his sympathisers to stir to his defence.
None of this exculpates Brown of his many flaws and self-inflicted wounds. Few could rival his rebarbative personality, which in the world of politics is saying something. No umbrage was left untaken, no grievance went unnursed, no grudge was ever surrendered. He wasted too many years as Labour’s most successful Chancellor attacking Labour’s most successful Prime Minister.
And he allowed himself to be a front for a Tory Prime Minister desperate to cling on to the Union and willing to say anything to do so. The Vow may have been an instrument of Brown’s devising but it has benefited no one as much as David Cameron.
Such are the complexities of a man too often seen in black and white. Gordon Brown’s final speech as an MP can help us understand the character and purpose of progressive politics and of the man himself. It is an artefact of a life in public service and a philosophical blueprint for those who will follow him.
Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Monika Flueckiger / World Economic Forum, swiss-image.ch /