More Courage than Prudence

Brown has put his conception of the national interest before popularity in a way that has left him trailing in the opinion polls and possibly even mortally wounded politically

Constitutional Affairs Counterpoints Media UK Politics War on Terror Westminster

A new political consensus has emerged that Gordon Brown lacks courage. All the fairies gathered round his cradle at birth, so the orthodoxy goes, and gave him the gifts of brains, diligence, erudition, perseverance and so on, before one of them suddenly snatched back courage. As a result, cowardice led him to cancel the autumn 2007 election-that-never-was, which was the start of his later tribulations. The idea has thus got about that, in Margaret Thatcher’s argot, Brown is “frit”.

In fact – despite his tactical error over the election that he obviously should have called – on the major strategic aspects of his premiership, Brown has shown remarkable courage. It would have been easy for him to have resiled from the deeply unpopular Bush, pulled British troops out of Basra and possibly also Helmand, and argued that the extension of pre-trial detention by a fortnight to 42 days was his predecessor’s fetish with which he would have nothing to do. Each of those stances would have won him cheap and easy plaudits from the bien-pensants, the media and especially his own backbenchers.

By complete contrast, Brown has put his conception of the national interest before popularity in a way that has left him trailing in the opinion polls and possibly even mortally wounded politically. His famously hard-bitten fingernails must have been chewed to the cuticles over the 42-days debate in the Commons in June, when he only won by the margin of nine Ulstermen. A political coward would have compromised – “35 days, anyone?” – or dropped the proposal altogether in the face of the combined opposition of the Guardian, the Tories, the Lib Dems, his own backbench rebels and the civil liberties lobbyist Shami Chakrabarti. Yet he soldiered on, because his conscience told him that if the Metropolitan Police says it needs this extra fortnight to fight terrorism, then it probably does. He has since shown similar toughness in rejecting union demands for improved rights to strike – even though this puts him at odds with Labour’s main financial backers, the trade union movement.

When next the PM is called a coward, consider how popular he could have made himself at the time of Blair’s resignation. The fact that he did not do so shows that, while he may have many faults, Gordon Brown does have guts.