The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

February 14th, 2010

Brown betrays us all to deliver his Diana moment

The trouble with selling your soul is that you get so little for it. Gordon Brown may be about to discover this. The prime minister will be baring his soul on television tonight and — so close to a general election — talking tearfully about the death of his baby daughter and the disability of his younger son. This cannot amount to anything other than selling his soul. Of course, many politicians do it. Politics can be a dirty trade and shroud-waving and chasing the sympathy vote are common enough.

The difference with Brown, and what makes this carefully orchestrated show of manly suffering and husbandly love so shameful, is that he is a man who has prided himself on his integrity. He has boasted of it. He has taken the trouble to inform us of his honesty, his discretion and his Christian convictions — in short, of his much-vaunted moral compass. Privacy and the sanctity of family life were non-negotiable, he claimed, and he has congratulated himself on this point in public.

No one asked him to be so buttoned up, so much the notorious “grumpy robot”. Other respectable politicians, such as David Cameron, have taken a more relaxed line about family privacy — but Brown insisted. In 2008 he announced, in his peculiar tone of dour sanctimony: “Some people have been asking why I haven’t served my children up for spreads in the papers. And my answer is simple. My children aren’t props; they’re people.” Oh dear. They’ve been well and truly served up now. And the disabled son may grow up to hear that his parents asked themselves: “Why, why, why, why us?”

Brown’s moral compass seems to have lost its bearings; instead of pointing true north, it now seems to be jittering in the direction of ravening ambition. I wonder how he will be able to live with it in time to come and whether he will think his honour well sold. A little upward blip in the opinion polls is not much, after all.

I do not doubt that Gordon and Sarah Brown are as grief-stricken as any of us would be at the loss of their daughter and the illness of their son. No one can fail to sympathise with them. That is not the point. The point is that the voters are being practised upon in a shameless way by a politician who, until now, has claimed to be morally above such stratagems.

Now, suddenly, Brown and his team — and, quite obviously, his wife as well — appear to believe they can “reintroduce” the man to the public after all these years in office. They are betting that arousing our sympathy, and allowing intrusive questions about how he proposed and whether he has joined the mile-high club, will make him seem human enough to vote for. And he is clearly prepared to abandon pride and principle in this last-ditch makeover. He and his team are prepared to dump “moral” — his former unique selling point — in favour of “vulnerable” and “authentic”. That means welling up with tears and sharing your most intimate moments on telly.

They are all at it now. It’s almost funny. Only days ago the steely Alastair Campbell astonished anyone interested by choking, apparently, over his powerful feelings about Tony Blair and the Iraq war in an interview with Andrew Marr. Campbell is back in Downing Street to try with his dark arts to turn Brown from frog to psephological prince: perhaps he was giving Brown a little demonstration of how “vulnerable” should be done on television in a brave, manly way.

Then Campbell appeared in another interview, defending Brown’s television performance tonight. As a defence it was not only shameless; it was oddly inept. Apart from a reference to the importance of “authenticity” in modern communications — the usual use of a word to mean its opposite — he avoided the central moral questions of whether the prime minister ought to be going on prime-time television at all, crying about a personal matter, or whether the public longs for more reticence.

Instead Campbell talked about the importance of getting politicians onto programmes such as the Piers Morgan show, about how Blair got lots of viewers when he appeared on the Des O’Connor show and about “presentational issues”. And he remarked: “I think the point is that ultimately you’re in an election year.” Indeed. With such defenders of his “authenticity”, Brown hardly needs detractors.

We have reached an extremely depressing low in contemporary politics. The prime minister is so desperate with ambition that he will sink to depths he despises to cling to power, even though he must know that most people are sick of him. His wife is unscrupulous enough to urge him and to help him to do so. His advisers, such as Campbell, are cynical enough to give it a go even though they know the chances of Gordon getting it right are not good, given his extraordinary lack of emotional intelligence.

At the same time, Campbell and the team despise the voters so heartily that they scarcely bother to disguise what they are doing. Morgan, who will be Brown’s television interviewer tonight, is a known Labour supporter and the interview was given to him to be certain of the best possible result. Campbell’s defence of Brown’s interview was, in its indifference or blindness to the intelligence of the viewer, worthy of Brown himself. He dared to speak of “authenticity”.

It is also depressing that we are getting a deliberate return to the emotional incontinence of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Blair — the constant exploitation of supposedly personal suffering for personal gain, a constant dramatic representation of authenticity, rather than the thing itself.

Diana’s rolling eyes, Tony’s trembling lips and Cherie’s swollen eyes were the most obvious signs of a widespread sentimentalisation of culture. For a while, in recent years, perhaps since the departure of Blair, none of that has seemed quite so excessive. But now it’s back, or at least the people around Brown are trying to bring it back. Make Gordon more like Tony.

The question is how far they will succeed and whether, if they do succeed, that will do Brown any good in the polls anyway. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, and it must be admitted that it is not wise to overestimate the electorate. I wonder which way it will go. It is a depressing question but, whichever way it goes for the country, the results aren’t likely to amount to much for Gordon Brown.