Comment: Brown and Britain
Gordon Brown is contributing to another book, this time on Britain. Try not to get too excited.
The last two books he wrote, Courage: Eight Portraits and Britain’s Everyday Heroes, were just too boring to read. As a political journalist, you felt a sense of duty, hoping for an insight into the man who, back then, was going to become prime minister. I didn’t make it very far. There was no bite to them, nothing to maintain your interest beyond the curiosity of seeing how many platitudes can be fitted into a single page.
Mr Brown’s next attempt may not be so inoffensive. This time he’s gone back to his pet subject, Britain, and it’s a subject he’s only ever managed to address in disastrous terms. I’m thinking of three occasions in particular.
Firstly, his call for Britons to fly the Union Jack in their back gardens, as Americans tend to do with the Stars and Stripes. It was a fascinating thing to suggest, because in one foul swoop he managed to encourage a celebration of the national character through an activity which is completely alien to that national character. He might as well have asked us to dress up as Frenchmen. If there’s something to celebrate about being British, and I believe there probably is, it has to do with the fact we don’t require such banal and crass displays of loyalty from the people of this country.
His second moment, considerably more horrific this time, was the call for “British jobs for British workers”. The very idea such a phrase would be followed by a standing ovation at the Labour party conference is enough to drive any traditional Labour supporter into a catatonic state of alcoholism and despair. It was an out and out appeal to those voters who aren’t members of the BNP – they will never vote Labour – but who are toying with the idea. Quite what it means is beyond me. British jobs where? Just here, or will BP have to hire only Britons in its Saudi offices as well? Are American businessmen to be barred from being sent to work in the UK for a couple of years by their companies?
The third phase of Mr Brown’s focus on Britishness is his endlessly irritating reference to these British values of his. There is undoubtedly such a thing as a national character, and in Britain that character is more fascinating and intangible than in most countries I’ve visited. But to talk about British values opens up a strange little door.
A basic philosophical point: You can’t define something using terms applicable to something else. For instance, you can’t define foxes by the fact they have teeth. Any attempt to pin down British values will find you staring at something happily evoked by other countries. What will we choose? Hard work? Neighbourliness? Freedom? Does anyone really believe other countries don’t have these values as well? Would any country cite laziness, hostility and slavery as its values?
There are a great many of us, on the left and the right, who are intensely proud of this country and would welcome an improvement in the way Britons think about themselves. But Mr Brown has shown a consistent inability to notice that which is best about living here, and a desire for a stale, aesthetic – even fascistic – view of patriotism which has no place in Britain.
The American model, which Mr Brown seems to admire, is intensely un-British. American patriotism involves the flying of the flag outside the home, schoolchildren pledging their allegiance every morning, the constant use of that pernicious phrase ‘anti-American’. If there’s something to be patriotic about as a Brit, it’s the absence of these curiosities, it’s the commitment to privacy, to doing whatever you want in your own home but keeping it out of our collective faces.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence the most dangerous moment for the Union has come at the same time as the UK has a Scottish prime minister, or perhaps it isn’t. But Mr Brown is nevertheless failing to address the deep period of self-doubt and confusion this country is suffering from. He’s made it patently obvious he has no working analysis of why it is happening. As to fixing it, his previous comments on the subject indicate he will only be able to make it worse. I await his new thoughts with a mixture of tedium and disdain.