Vince Cable’s comment to Gordon Brown that as Prime Minister he had become another ‘Mr Bean’ has stuck. With this brilliant taunt, Cable at a stroke formed the popular narrative of Brown’s Premiership as one of personal failure.
The question to my mind though is whether Gordon Brown ever aspired to succeed in democratic terms. Cable’s comment assumes that Brown gives a damn about the democratic niceties, and that he aspires to win and hold on to office.
There is far more evidence that Brown for a long time avoided opportunities to become Labour leader and Prime Minister,than that he was ever straining at the leash to openly take control, as Blair’s supporters have tended to portray Brown. He has instead quietly and persistently built an unassailable position by avoiding any democratic test.
From the biographical account given by Tom Bower and Jonathan Freedland’s review in the New York Review Of Books, it is clear that Brown had enough chances to seize the Labour Party leadership under John Smith, if he had really wanted it.
Equally he could have felled Blair at the time of the Iraq decision, by joining in rebellion with Robin Cook. He could have also felled Blair by not backing him over Hutton and David Kelly. In fact he let every opportunity to go for the leadership pass him by for over a period of fifteen years. If he was so hungry to be a democratic leader, you could fairly ask why did he not take any of his chances before?
There are also questions as to Brown’s record in office. How, for example can the prudent Chancellor of the 1990’s have become the leader who cannot manage the economic downturn of the Noughties, while he oversees the most complex taxation system in the world, with the ballooning deficits that he has created? And how can the eurosceptic Chancellor who blocked the Euro when Blair wanted to sign Britain up, then sign up to the EU Constitution without a referendum, on instructions from Brussels?
Are all these apparent failures explainable purely by personality defects as Cable seems to suggest? Is Gordon Brown in Rowan Atkinson’s words, desribing his Bean creation, merely “a child in a grown man’s body” – a man with benign intentions who has only to be pitied at his inability to cope with the real world? I doubt it.
From the Bower biography, there can be little doubt that Brown is totally obsessed with power. He interprets every dissent as betrayal, turning against even close colleagues who have failed to show sufficient loyalty.
As for his economic priorities, these are seen as purely political by Bower. He was simultaneously Iron Gordon to the City of London, promising no curbs on the wealth of the super-rich, and Red Gordon, preaching the old-time religion to the Labour faithful. In reality he is neither. Instead he’s created a web of complexity at vast expense to cover his tracks.
His behaviour might appear dysfunctional to any logical observer. He was said to have acted like a “mad relative in the attic, constantly banging the floor with a saucepan,” according to one former Downing Street aide. Bt at all times, his dysfunctionality has gained him position at the expense of others. Brown’s dysfunctionality has always been dysfunctionalty with a purpose.
Judging Brown a failure because he is not a great success as a speaker, or as a debater, is to wrongly define the terms. Brown seeks not office, nor celebrity status like Blair, but power. And power he has achieved, and continues to hold.
He has sought power not through democratic means, but more sinisterly, through raw bureaucratic control. He is not a Mr Bean character who has failed. He is in fact a winner so devious and treacherous that people interpret his successes as failings. He is the first Prime Minister of the Post Democratic Age, who doesn’t give a fig that others seem younger, or more popular than him. All that matters to Brown is that he holds the cards.
He has negotiated a power base in Europe by delivering the UK up on a plate to Brussels, and he fully expects to remain a powerful figure, and stay in powerful positions for many years to come. Blair wanted to be Britain’s betrayer, but Brown elbowed him to one side until the critical moment. He is the one who carried the batton of betrayal over the finishing line. Mr Bean, he is not.