Change, Optimism and Hope

Since he took office in June, I’ve largely refrained from sharing my views on Gordon Brown – partly due to my inability to write more than two paragraphs on the man without descending into profanity, but mostly in the expectation … Read More

By / December 20, 2007

Since he took office in June, I’ve largely refrained from sharing my views on Gordon Brown – partly due to my inability to write more than two paragraphs on the man without descending into profanity, but mostly in the expectation that Jewcy readers are far too sensible to give a damn about the man, let alone his unpopularity among Brit bloggers.


Don’t worry: that expectation still stands, and I don’t intend to bore you with a long diatribe against that [redacted] Brown. But an op-ed in today’s New York Times does give me an excuse to draw a fairly broad comparison between Brown’s travails in the UK, where he languishes 10-15 points down in the polls after just six months in the job, and the growing perception that Hillary Clinton is, if not in trouble exactly, then certainly facing a challenge to her coronation that even a few weeks ago would have seemed unlikely.


Gordon Brown was Tony Blair’s heir apparent for over a decade; the partnership between the two was the driving force behind New Labour’s rise to the ascendancy in British politics, breaking the Conservative lock on government (though not, in many areas, on policy or language) and propelling Labour into an unprecedented decade of power. Despite re-electing them for a third term in 2005, voters seemed heartily sick of Tony Blair (largely though not solely due to Iraq) and so when Brown took over at the beginning of summer after being elected unopposed to the leadership of his party, the government enjoyed a significant boost in the polls.


Early crises – botched terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, severe flooding of large swathes of England, and the return of foot-and-mouth – tested the new PM’s mettle, and his solidity and calmness under pressure impressed many and added to his reputation as the not-Blair, the dependable, competent leader who’d rein in the showbiz excesses of the last few years and deliver prosperity, opportunity for all, blah blah blah.


That was only a few months ago, but politically it seems like a different century. Brown has lurched from catastrophe to catastrophe – most notably by allowing speculation about a snap election to monopolise the political debate for so long that when he finally announced, in the face of some challenging opinion polls, that there would be no early vote, and then compounded the error by claiming that those polls had had nothing whatever to do with his decision, he was roundly derided from all sides.


Since then his misfortunes have been almost Biblical in their scale. A scandal over sensitive information on welfare recipients going missing, including bank account numbers and children’s names and addresses, fed into the collapse of the Northern Rock mortgage lender to shatter the strongest card in Brown’s deck – that of competence. Renewed allegations of money laundering and financial impropriety by the Labour Party have attacked his reputation for probity. And stealing several opposition tax cuts mere days after they were announced made him look like an opportunist. From a position of remarkable strength as late as October, Brown now faces speculation about his position and cuts a shambolic figure.


This lengthy exposition is enough to make it obvious that any comparison between Brown and the Democratic frontrunner must of necessity be very broad-brush indeed. And yet there is a similarity, if a tentative one. Brown and Clinton are, in many ways, the ultimate insiders, having both served nearly a decade at the heart of government (albeit, in Hillary’s case, in an unelected capacity). And yet this experience, which both constantly stress, is a double-edged sword, because both now find themselves having to present their candidacies as an opportunity for “change” when it’s patently obvious to many voters that they represent nothing of the sort.


Both Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton face challenges from young pretenders – David Cameron and Barack Obama respectively – who eschew the “safe pair of hands” approach in favour of a reliance on charisma, and use buzzwords like “optimism” and “hope” as if they actually believe them. (That’s not to say they necessarily have the policies to back up the fuzzy sentiments, naturally, but that’s not really the point.) These are the oldest moves in the playbook, of course, but up against machine politicians you play the percentages. The cosy insiders fight fire with fire, but unless they’re gifted liars their mendacity is as transparent as their smiles. Mark Penn’s suggestion last week that only Hillary has “the experience to bring about change” was a triumph of doublethink, but will it fool the electorate?


Every politician talks about standing up for the little guy against the Beltway insider, but what comes across when watching both Brown and Clinton is that, for all their talk of change, they essentially represent more of the same; not quite as slippery as Blair, rather cleverer than Bush, but not exactly Mr Smith goes to Washington. Most damagingly of all, both have gained a reputation for being calculating, choosing policy positions on the basis of partisan political considerations, and never opening their mouth until they know what the shot is.


Dour solidity and competence in troubled times are what both Brown and Clinton are counting on to win them elections, but the signs are that voters want more than that. As Rachel Sylvester writes in the Daily Telegraph, they desire inspiration as well as perspiration. And just as the early flights of pro-Brown idealism have given way to a more sober appraisal of his potential, not even the most nostalgic Democrat pretends that Hillary will be able to speak to the hopes and aspirations of the voters in the way her husband, for better or worse, found so easy.


Don’t misunderstand; the smart money has to be on the two of them winning their battles and still being around in a couple of years’ time. That’s why machine politicians infest the streets of London and Washington like a thick carpet of rats while genuinely inspirational outsiders come along but once a generation; because the rats know all the best boltholes. Both Brown and Clinton have big organisations and big bucks behind them; both are wily, experienced campaigners. Their opponents have a real mountain to climb, and a few favourable polls mean nothing in the grand scheme.


And even when the seismic shock does happen and the new broom sweeps in to “clean up politics once and for all”, the machine immediately sets to work on them, smoothes down the edges and short-circuits the more ambitious plans; and four years later they’re running as the voice of experience against some new guy who waffles on about “hope” and “change”. And the cycle begins again. Cynical? Moi?

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