Alex Massie

Gordon Brown’s Presbyterian Conscience

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When a politician tries to make a virtue out of the fact that he was brought up in a household in which lying was frowned upon then, verily, you know he's on his uppers. Equally, though I daresay that much of the expenses scandal does offend the remnants of Gordon's "presbyterian conscience" it's not immediately clear that asserting his own membership of the Elect is necessarily going to endear the Prime Minister to his twin congregations at Westminster and in the country at large, each of which is manifestly fallen...

Anyway, if Brown's "presbyterian conscience" really is all he'd like us to think it is and if his bally "moral compass" was really fashioned from the values of the Manse and all the rest of it then one has to say that his actions as Chancellor and Prime Minister have largely confounded, nay betrayed, the very values that Brown claims to hold dear.

That is, no true presbyterian conscience could possibly countenance the level of debt Gordon Brown has landed on every family in the country. Indeed, such a reckless attitude to the public finances would be a matter for shame, not pride. It directly contradicts the old-fashioned Scots values of thrift and living within ones means. Not that it's just a question of the national debt either: the massive expansion of public spending without any parallel increase in accountability or performance would also seem to offend the presbyterian ethic.

So too, one might also remember, does Gordon Brown's attitude to welfare reform. Essentially, he and Tony Blair funked it. Frank Field was told to "think the unthinkable" and then, once he (perhaps foolishly) had, told that his recommendations were in fact rather too unthinkable. And so a dependency culture that is a glaring affront to presbyterian* values continues even after 12 years of this pious, prating ministry.

Mind you, perhaps this is unfair on the Prime Minister. His "presbyterian conscience" is only total baloney if you consider the notion of a "presbyterian conscience" and all it might stand for to be a good thing. There is a different view, however, and if one considers how a "presbyterian conscience" is often revealed to be a flimsy cover for preening declarations of moral superiority, cant, humbug and hypocrisy as well as a certain grim-souled control-freakery then perhaps the Prime Minister has indeed been defined by his damn "presbyterian conscience".

In other words: if presbyterian values are a Good Thing then Gordon Brown must be judged a failure; and if they're a Bad Thing then the Prime Minister must also be considered a dangerous failure.

More on this here. And, again, the poet - ie, Burns - could have been anticipating Gordon when (in Holy Willie's Prayer) he wrote that

    When from my mither's womb I fell,

    Thou might hae plung'd me deep in hell,

    To gnash my gums, and weep and wail,

    In burnin lakes,

    Where damned devils roar and yell,

    Chain'd to their stakes.

    Yet I am here a chosen sample,

    To show thy grace is great and ample;

    I'm here a pillar o' Thy temple,

    Strong as a rock,

    A guide, a buckler, and example,

    To a' Thy flock.

*And not just to presbyterian values either, though of course it is characteristic of the smugness of the Unco Guid that they apportion these values to themselves and typical that they consider their holding them proof of the superiority of their character and their morals.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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