Alex Massie

The Myth of Gordon Brown the Eternal Battler

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Self-delusion is an important skill in politics. If you can't convince yourself that what you're saying is true then good luck with convincing the electorate. Among Gordon Brown's difficulties is the unfortunate truth that he's not an accomplished liar. So, for instance, when he tells Andrew Marr this morning that

"Everything I have ever won in my life I have had to fight for."

voters can be excused finding this preposterous. True, Brown's eye-troubles and his battles to help modernise the Labour party have been struggles, but within the context of his own upbringing and political history, Brown's as much an establishment figure as, in his own very different way and in a different sense, David Cameron. Brown's childhood was a privileged one in the context of Kirkcaldy and being a Son of the Manse (to say nothing of his own hot-housed education). From there he moved to Edinburgh University (where he was Rector) and subsequently seamlessly graduated to a position at the heart of the Scottish Labour movement.

Yes, there have been battles on the way. But many of the most significant struggles have been internal ones: first against the old guard, then against the Blairites as Brown nursed his wrath for a decade and built what amounted to an internal opposition. Only rarely (between 1995 and 1997 for example) however, has Brown's focus been on persuading people who don't vote Labour to support the party. Here too, one may observe that he's a party man through and through. It's inconceivable that Brown could be anything other than a Labour man. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

But one of Blair's great strengths was that he was not actually of the Labour movement. This gave him a breadth of imagination and, yes, empathy, that Brown has always lacked. Indeed, had Labour won the 1979 election it's not impossible to imagine Blair joining the Conservative party. A different time, of course, but the point remains: Blair could connect with people who didn't understand Labour because, for some time, he was one of those people too.

Brown, by contrast, lacks that imaginative quality and this is, in the end, one of the things that has doomed his career. If you cannot conceive of the other, far less acknowledge that other people might disagree with you in good faith, you're condemned to be little more than a tribalist. That's not necessarily disastrous in fat times; it becomes a problem in lean ones.

And in the end, while there's some truth to the notion that the British have a sympathy for the underdog, they prefer their underdogs to be plucky and stoical, not wallowing in self-pity.

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.

Topics in this articlePoliticslabour party