Alex Massie

Holy Gordon’s Prayer

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There's a telling line in this story from the Mail which (if true!) gets to the heart of Gordon Brown's sense of himself. Apparently he was unhappy with the line of questioning being pursued by a recent TV interviewer, leading Brown to complain, off-camera, that "You are impugning my integrity." Now if ever a complaint reeked of the Manse, this is it.

Not that the Prime Minister is alone in parading his own estimation of his integrity as though it deflected not only criticism but, more implausibly still, the very grounds upon which such criticism might be offered; the late John Smith could take such a view himself. Smith was fond of arguing that the Scots are "a more moral people" than the English and, deep down, I'd be (very) surprised if Gordon Brown didn't secretly agree.

The Prime Minister enjoys reminding us that he's a Son of the Manse whose "values" still owe much to the Kirk and whose much-vaunted "moral compass" was calibrated at an early age, largely through the example of his minister father and the Church of Scotland. Who, pray, could be against any of that?

Plenty of folk in Scotland, that's who. Whatever the Kirk's (very real) achievements and notwithstanding its importance as the defining, single most vital institution in Scottish life for hundreds of years, there's something to the criticisms that the Kirk was also a limiting, stifling influence upon Scottish lives. That is, for all its public respectability and for all its good works and contributions to social cohesion, it could also be a sanctimonious, joyless church that encouraged its congregation to be suspicious of anything new or different. If there's a Scottish Cringe, the Kirk must bear some responsibility for it. Though its hold on Scottish life was weakening by the time Brown was a boy, the Kirk's certainty of its own righteousness and wisdom seems to have seeped deep into Brown's marrow.

And like the Kirk, the Prime Minister views individual action with a measure of suspicion. Better by far for the congregation to be shepherded to righteousness than to risk uncertainty by trusting people. No, in the end, they are all children requiring guidance. Authority and control are needed, otherwise heaven knows what they'll do. Nothing good, certainly. This can be a sadly narrow view of life and one that risks accumulating great stockpiles of cant and humbug too.

Hence, Brown's attitude towards other government departments when he was Chancellor. Hence too the increasing complexity of the tax code as Reverend Brown dispenses tax credits and allowances to those congregants whom he decides have deserved them. And there's a sense too in which Team Brown's tribalism owes something to this: We are Good People; We are Doing This; Because We are Good People, This Must Be Good.

There are times when one can read Burns and, without too much imagination, hear Gordon's voice. Thus, from Holy Willie's Prayer:

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. Or, for that matter, the first three verses of the Address to the Unco Guid might also apply to many politicians but, right now, to Gordon in particular:

O ye wha are sae guid yoursel',

Sae pious and sae holy,

Ye've nought to do but mark and tell

Your neibours' fauts and folly!

Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill,

Supplied wi' store o' water;

The heaped happer's ebbing still,

An' still the clap plays clatter.

Hear me, ye venerable core,

As counsel for poor mortals

That frequent pass douce Wisdom's door

For glaikit Folly's portals:

I, for their thoughtless, careless sakes,

Would here propone defences-

Their donsie tricks, their black mistakes,

Their failings and mischances.

Ye see your state wi' theirs compared,

And shudder at the niffer;

But cast a moment's fair regard,

What maks the mighty differ;

Discount what scant occasion gave,

That purity ye pride in;

And (what's aft mair than a' the lave),

Your better art o' hidin. Aye, methinks that Robert Burns would have recognised our Prime Minister and that he might not have been overly impressed by another prating minister who holds himself sae pious and sae holy and whose "integrity" is assumed, ex officio. A minister who, however well-intentioned, also protests his "integrity" too much. No wonder that integrity seems made of altogether thinner stuff once the spell is broken. When that happens even a Son of the Manse is revealed, naked, as just a man.

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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