Things aren’t going well for me at the moment: I feel like Gordon Brown’s government…

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that I can read parallels between my own life and that of the government. Rushdie’s Midnight Children and Roth’s American Pastoral, two wonderful vindications of the realist novel, have impregnated me with the idea. Not the fully-blown world-historical pairing of Midnight’s Children (which is frankly magical) or the almost complete nation-individual paralleling of American Pastoral, but the sense that the politics of our culture leaves its stamp on us. It’s partly what this blog is about: the search for Blair’s children, the task of understanding those who came to political maturity under New Labour. I want to understand what it is that is peculiar to our experience, how the character of government has made us what we are.

For perhaps the first time I feel the stronger sort of Rothian parallel. Things aren’t going well for me at the moment. I’m not playing upon life, I’m belabouring it; and I feel completely impotent to control it. My job is dreary, the city in which I live has been emptied of friends and in a month’s time I will have left my job and my flat in Cambridge for London without yet finding a replacement for either. And I know what I feel like. I feel like Gordon Brown’s government.

The government is going to the devil. It is disintegrating, directionless, bereft of confidence – many would say mortally wounded. It has been brought low. Not everyone has given up hope of its recovery, but many have written it off. In writing about it, I feel an affinity for Brown. His government, his story, have started to inspire pathos. His life’s hopes are being very publicly destroyed; and how much he is responsible for that, I’m not sure. The media is perverted and cruel. I feel an affinity for the media too, but it is mingled with the sense of disgust that we always feel when we recognise submerged sadistic impulses in ourselves.

Objectively, though, (as if that still meant anything at all): the situation now with the public services, with foreign policy, with the public finances is really very little different from what it was under Blair; and we were not so monumentally dissatisfied with him. I think it highlights very clearly how inappropriate a much-used analytical dichotomy is: that between substance and presentation. Commentators who talk about a strategy to engineer a Brown revival for the most part advocate either new policies (a break from the Blair years, radical constitutional reform, a war on child poverty etc.) or a new style of politics (less partisan, less staged, less rhetorical).

But that sort of 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.

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