McBrideshead Revisited

In the spin doctor’s memoirs the similarities between Evelyn Waugh’s protagonist Charles Ryder and Gordon Brown’s antagonist Damian McBride are several and eerie

William Norton

A bright boy from North London, the narrator, goes up to an ancient university. He is taken into a glamorous world which will inspire, consume and ultimately reject him. He is dazzled by a brilliant but flawed friend. His ham-fisted actions cost him the women he loves, but he gains self-knowledge and maturity. The story ends on a note of redemption which contrasts with, but follows from, the tone which precedes.

Easy to dismiss Power Trip as meant only for newspaper serialisation to generate headlines. If you follow British politics, you already know the juicy anecdotes which Damian McBride relates about Gordon, Ed, Douglas, Ed, John, David, Charles, Alistair, Ivan, etc, and the uproar they have caused. If you have no idea who these people are, I shan’t spoil your day by explaining.

McBride worked at the Treasury under Gordon Brown, first as civil servant and then as political adviser dealing with the media; transferred to No 10 when Brown became Prime Minister; and had to resign when he was implicated in an attempted smear campaign. This book explains how that came about. McBride details all his distasteful acts, successful or otherwise, to manipulate the public image of his boss and lower the standing of rivals. We are meant to be shocked.

Being upfront about poisonous practices, McBride pitches his book in direct contrast to the conventional political memoir, whose ghost-writer praises his subject’s achievements and ignores all but a few token errors. This is a personal account of how an aggressively competitive person lost, to coin a phrase, his moral compass. By the end he was being vicious for the sake of it, so he had to go.

McBride wants us to know just how wrong he was and what he has done to straighten himself out. The contrition he has adopted in interviews, together with working at a Catholic school and then a Catholic aid agency, and passing references to making confession, have led some to see this book as an act of penance.

Well, if you’re looking for Catholic resonances, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited works better. Both are composed as flashbacks from an opening trigger (Ryder’s regiment arriving at Brideshead; McBride climbing out of a neighbour’s kitchen window to evade photographers). In both the narrator drifts into a career for which he had no previous training (Ryder becomes a painter after redecorating Brideshead; McBride starts as a VAT expert and ends as a spin doctor). The role of Sebastian Flyte is shared between Ed Balls and Ed Miliband (and during the story they swap roles of unreliable narcissist and teddy bear).

McBride claims he rose through his ability to draft concise reports and effective speeches. I believe him. He has a brisk, economical approach. The book is well-written. But not even McBride’s mother would rate his writing higher than Waugh’s. Power Trip is more vulgar, chatty rather than witty, couched as a pub conversation. Its author’s dark deeds emphasise the presence of sin, not the operation of grace. The religion of its characters is football, not Roman Catholicism.

Nevertheless, both writers use a dominating metaphor around which all action revolves. For Waugh this was Brideshead itself, the stately home whose values are being polluted by modernity. For McBride it is the equally monolithic Gordon Brown, a titanic statesman of genius and moral certainty who saved the world but has been traduced by an ungrateful nation. Power Trip is not an act of contrition but an attempt at rehabilitation. If only we had known the “real” Gordon Brown; if only we had understood how deeply he cared; if only we could have seen him in private; if only we could have appreciated what was going on inside his head; if only, if only, urges McBride, then the Brown administration would not have been such a bloody cock-up. And that, I’m afraid, is where Power Trip goes all wrong.

His theory lends his writing a tone of indignation, where Waugh opted for elegy. Yes, I was nasty, says McBride, but I was doing it to further this really good and nice man, who knew nothing about my activities, and you ought to have appreciated him more. This drags. So much so that we begin to notice amid the contrition the odd score being settled and inconvenient fact being slid over.

I don’t think it would have made any difference at the time knowing how much Gordon Brown really wanted to end poverty in India or was really worried about the economic threat of China. Well, not to anyone who knew how Brown was really governing the country. So what if his heart was in the right place? Everything else was all over the shop.

If Brown was such a wonderful man who inspired all around him with intense loyalty, why exactly was it necessary for people such as McBride to devote so much effort to smearing his colleagues? And why did everything fall to pieces in about six months? McBride says he loved Brown. Nobody is indifferent to their boss. Most people fluctuate between love and loathing. Organisations only go bad when everyone feels the same way about the boss all the time. Power Trip depicts a leader-worshipping cult which suddenly degenerates into a mass suicide pact.

McBride has written the wrong book.  Buried within Power Trip are interesting thoughts about civil service recruitment and promotion (no, seriously), and there is real value in the chapters discussing the Budget and the role of a spin doctor. Our author is undoubtedly talented. Nobody can go from an unfashionable backwater like Customs and Excise to head of communications at the Treasury as quickly as he did without ability.  It’s such a pity that this was frittered away peddling dirt. It is also a shame that he wastes his and our time now thrashing out who did and did not say nasty things about Douglas.

Interior repentance entails a radical reorientation of life, not just an end of sin but a turning away from evil. We need a book telling us how to run a modern government which prevents, and does not require, people acting like Damian McBride. Who better to write that than Damian McBride?

So while we wait for him to write the serious book he should have produced, might I recommend the box set of Brideshead Revisited?  

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