‘My quasi-Freudian theory about Gordon Brown is that he reminds the electorate collectively of Daddy’
On the day of June’s European elections, a dapper older gentleman explained to a Newsnight reporter why he had recently switched from voting Labour to Conservative. “As soon as…” he drifted off, at a loss for words, and then exclaimed, “I loathe Gordon Brown.” So much for the British art of understatement.
However improbably, out the other side of the worst election result for his party in 99 years, Brown is still Prime Minister, and this brooding bull of a man makes an irresistible character study for a novelist. Labour having polled a miserable 15 per cent in an election widely regarded as a litmus test of the Prime Minister’s popularity — or lack thereof — his ungrateful electorate’s “loathing” for their leader is not mere surmise but statistical fact. With an approval rating of 17 per cent, Gordon is more widely disliked than George W. Bush. But why?
American presidential elections are often criticised for being personality contests, but political leadership is always about personality. That may sometimes prove a weakness for democracies, but observing an individual’s strengths and failings writ large is also what keeps politics from becoming insufferably dull. If Gordon’s problem is personality, it’s not merely his charmlessness. John Major was pretty charmless, inspiring not antipathy but indifference. My quasi-Freudian theory about why Gordon pushes so many emotional buttons? He reminds the electorate collectively of Daddy.
We’re not talking that humble, well-wishing sort of Dad, the supportive kind delighted to see his children exceed his own modest achievements. No, we’re talking that fierce paterfamilias who clings to his role well into his dotage, never acknowledging that his kids have grown up. The kind of high-handed Dad who engineers all manner of unpleasantness because it’s really for the children’s own good. Hence Gordon’s scorn for an electorate that would turf him out of office given the chance.
Ironically, this ambitious archetype almost always suffers from chronic dissatisfaction. After scheming to become PM all his adult life, Gordon has rarely seemed to enjoy the office. Perhaps this impels him to cling to it, in the desperate expectation that being PM next week will finally provide some joy. The same psychology drives the obese to keep eating: surely it’s the very fact that food has failed to gratify that makes overweight people continue to stuff down more of it.
Paternalists in this mould may be stormily beset by internal demons, but they never, ever admit culpability for anything. Thus Gordon has never once acknowledged having played a part as Chancellor in the country’s economic implosion. It’s always a worldwide downturn, though he was more than happy to take credit for the good times. When his own flaccid fiscal regime brought on disaster, Gordon cast himself as saviour, even if what he would save you from is himself.
On the heels of the election, the Daily Telegraph ran Anne McElvoy’s feature comparing Brown to King Lear, headlined “Flawed grandeur Shakespeare would surely have recognised.” Yet what makes any tale “Shakespearean” is Shakespeare. The grandeur of a story is all in the telling (and I should know). Minus the lofty language, Lear is just one more vain, delusional codger. A bad Dad.
Described by Lord Turnbull as “Stalinist”, by Lord Mandelson as “angry”, Gordon has vowed to “keep learning”. But while character transformation is a virtual requirement in novels, I fear this is a literary conceit. Real people tend to stay depressingly the same from Chapter One to their last monotonous page.
Doubtless we’ll feel sorry for Gordon whenever he does go, just as kids who never liked their controlling father much will still feel guilty when the old man is bundled off. Once he’s no longer a hulking, oppressive, formidable PM but a personally disappointed ex-statesman, his story will seem sad.
But Gordon’s small, individual story is not what’s sad. What’s sad is this country being ruled by someone whose instincts hew ominously close to those of Vladimir Putin or Robert Mugabe — the sort who in a more vulnerable political system, purely for the sake of the country of course, declares himself Prime Minister for Life. Eschewing an election for a backroom deal in a restaurant, Gordon is not a natural democrat. In refusing to “walk away” for his people’s own good, he doesn’t give British voters credit for being grown-ups. They shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about government, and should count themselves lucky to rest in the capable, benevolent hands of Big Daddy. Father knows best.
Fortunately, as many a demented potentate discovers in competency hearings, the children will have the last laugh.