Boring Boring Brown

I think I know what lies at the root of all of Gordon Brown’s problems. Let near-sighted (and high-minded) commentators point to the abortive election or the financial apocalypse or to inegalitarian tax reform if they want – but not me. I know what the first cause of Brown’s failure is, the ultimate explanation that clear-sighted historians will penetrate to with the still decades-hence gift of hindsight.

Gordon Brown is boring.

In these postmodern days of razzle-dazzle, surface and cynicism where beauty is confounded with goodness, and appearances are worth more real than reality, Brown has committed the cardinal sin of boring us. Ours is a media-constituted world – an informational collage of images and myths, soundbites and iconography in which we live enmeshed never escapsing the view from inside. And Brown has let that world down; let us down. Like a benefit-swindling crack mum he has failed to live up to his social obligations. He has to be taught that there are no rights without responsibilities. The first individual of the country has to be a character, a genius of the public realm, an everyman hero of the television, playing upon the media like Hendrix on an electric guitar, swimming in it as if it were his natural medium, conjuring and necromancing with it like a media-savvy Sauron. He has to be a master of the dark, shallow arts of self-representation. But Brown isn’t. He is boring: dour, anti-charismatic, drab, tedious, the greyest of bureaucrats.

The physiognomy of tedium

We can accept people who swindle us, coerce us, humiliate us; people who set out to best us and achieve it; people who neglect us, who outperform us, who forget our names. Rogues, hedonists, flaneurs, roués, egotists we can forgive: those who transgress or get the better of us, those who wrong us, but who do it with a little style or some forgivable ambition, even some understandable selfishness. But we will not forgive those who bore us. People who steal our time, numb our pleasure centres, turn our fast-coursing blood to gravy – all of this generally without understanding or feeling the warranted contrition – belong in the most ingeniously appointed circle of hell. We will never forgive them. The only thing they will get from us is cruel, unforgiving revenge. And they deserve nothing better – Brown included.

Brown is a victim of the spirit of the times; he is vestigial, a survival whose chief characteristics are now maladaptive. He is an innocent in all this, completely guiltless – but he has outlived the environment in which he was able to thrive and is doomed now to live out the most painfully public death. At worst he can be accused of a little foolishness and overreaching: through the years of waiting and heir-presumption he did a lot of inflating of expectations; something which he continued to do on coming to power. All those years in Number 11 he sat on an opaque anti-Pandora’s Box of marked political genius whispering about the glory hidden within. And after Blair he was novelty, change, not­-Blair. For a while the media tried the hat on him: they experimented with stories about him as a man of gravitas, serious moral purpose, substance – the Son of the Manse, the one-nation Prime Minister, the father of the nation. But after a while it just all proved too implausible and the realisation was made that Brown was more of the same: a partisan politician who wanted to win elections and run the country his way. Brown was just Blair. Except worse – he was boring too.

In what way is Brown boring? Just watch the man in a session of PMQs or in a television interview: he is a political soporific. He makes terrible viewing. To watch him is to realise that the transfiguration of politicians into media-constituted figures – real media symbiotes – has completely passed him by. There are the statistics for a start. Endless statistics – meaningless, garbled statistics, read out – not spoken – in the flattest, most uninspiring voice. Without any frame of reference Brown’s statistics are abstract and inhuman, an ever-repeating episode of rhetorical self-harm, a sort of abdication of the argument to the Opposition. And that’s without even engaging with the questionable practice of deploying statistics argumentatively – with this pseudo-objectivism that closes its ears to the unarguable fact that there is no such thing as an unideological way to count or a set of figures that don’t carry with them political presuppositions.

And then there’s his antithesising – such anodyne, pedestrian antithesising. Week after week he persists in this increasingly embarrassing self-plagiarism. To explain myself: politics is about creating antitheses – dividing the political world into two camps with rival and mutually exclusive positions. They key to a successful politics is to be adroit and imaginative in creating these divisions, so that most of the time most of the people belong to your ‘us’ and not their ‘them.’ Brown’s are boring, old, tired – everything that people say about him as a Prime Minister. In fact, they are the antitheses of the mid-1990’s – the one’s that have always worked for him. Labour supports investment; the Tories are in favour of tax cuts. Labour tackles poverty and spreads opportunity; the Tories (always the Tories, never the Conservatives – as if calling them by their name were to give them undeserved credence) look after their own wealthy supporters. And so on. Brown is unvarying in rehearsing these same antitheses. He has learnt nothing of the virtues of a Protean self-presentation: instead of variety he just offers vanilla, the stalest of vanillas.

Everything that I’ve written so far has been polemical, cruel and (considering the current media climate) cheap. But I’m pretty certain it’s right. Brown is a victim of the boredom of a cool, cynical, disengaged media in a period of irony and technocratic, unideological politics. And the media is right to be bored with Brown. He is not personally engaging; he doesn’t do the media-facing half (yes – half) of politics well; and he has been ill-advised enough to be seen to engage in a game of self-representation that he is hopelessly ill-suited to play. The key question is whether or not this is fair, whether there is any sense in such a way of conducting politics.

After all, the country is being run broadly along the same lines as it was under Blair. In substance (the odd constitutional proposal and house-building target aside) Brown is just Blair less successfully dramatized for the public. Same substance, different style. So surely the rape of Brown is unfair? Not necessarily. The style-substance dichotomy completely distorts the way in which politics works in a media-saturated, democratic polity. Presentation is policy; it is substantive. The tone that a leader sets, the narrative that they create, the value statements that they present to the electorate, the role that they can convince the media and electorate to let them play in the national life: that stuff is constitutive of our politics. Part of what it is to lead a country and to effect positive change is to make people believe in you. A revolution in the public services requires us to believe in the improvements, to trust in the disinterestedness and efficiency of the producers. A renewed constitution requires us to have faith in our politicians as servants of the public, as partisans of the public weal not petty peculators, hucksters and charlatans. There are no political outcomes which are independent of the way that we see those outcomes and that is a question of the war of images and discourses, narratives and paradigms, parties and ideologies that takes place in the public sphere.

As traditionally understood, Brown’s government might be very similar in substance to Blair’s – broadly the same policies, delivering the same outcomes – but Brown is not as good a Prime Minister in substantive terms because he has lost control of the way that his government is seen. Brown has lost credibility as a political leader. The media and the masses no longer believe in his agency, they no longer trust his judgement, they no longer believe in his assessments, they no longer have a coherent picture of what he represents. Leaders and political outcomes are constructed in the discourse of the public domain and unless Brown can find some way to regain some measure of control of these constructions then he is finished.

One Response to “Boring Boring Brown”

  1. Jane Goody Says:

    I read your posts for quite a long time and should tell that your articles are always valuable to readers.

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