Wednesday, 22 July 2009
Hitchens on the Labour Party
No, Prime Minister
Britain’s Labour Party, the author’s first political home, when he was a young idealist, now stands for nothing in his eyes. Unless one counts the Nixonian power lust—dirty tricks included—of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
By Christopher Hitchens August 2009
Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office in June 2007, and it’s been downhill for the Labour Party ever since. Illustration by André Carrilho.
Finally all other emotions were lost in the overflowing sense of relief that his days of waiting for achievement were over.… To Gordon it seemed no more than the inevitable entrance into a kingdom which was his by right of conquest. —Alec Waugh, The Loom of Youth.
Early this past June it became hard to distinguish among the resignation statements that were emanating almost daily from Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Cabinet. The noise of collapsing scenery drowned out the individuality of the letters—one female minister, I remember, complained that she was being used as “window dressing”—but there was one missive from a departing comrade that caught my eye. It came from James Purnell, a man generally agreed to have done a more than respectable job as minister for work and pensions, and it began like this:
We both love the Labour Party. I have worked for it for twenty years and you for far longer. We know we owe it everything and it owes us nothing …
I sat back in my chair. Yes, it’s true. One suddenly could recall a time when membership in the Labour Party (or “the Labour movement,” as it would call itself on great occasions) was a thing of pride. I remember deciding to go and join it in 1965, on the very first day that I was old enough to be eligible, and leaving the battered old union hall where I had signed up, delightedly clutching a membership card that called for common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.
Yes, well, you don’t need to tell me that there were some drawbacks to this position (though now that practically everything in sight is being nationalized by liberals and conservatives I occasionally allow myself a smirk). But in the political battles of those days, about inequality and exploitation, about nuclear weapons and apartheid and Vietnam, one went to a Labour Party meeting expecting, and getting, a fight over important matters of principle. There were even occasions when some of us would say, and mean it when we said it, that we would rather lose an election than give up on our ideals.
And now look. The British Labour Party has just, in elections to the European Parliament, received its smallest share of the vote since 1918 (when it was a new and young third-party force). Its candidates in local elections have trailed in third and even fourth place, losing ground in working-class districts to openly Fascist groups such as the British National Party. This is not a defeat. It is a humiliation. And on exactly what question of principle was Labour brought so low?
If you can’t answer that question, you are in good company. The main if not the sole “issue” appears to be the self-love and the self-pity of a prime minister—Gordon Brown—who has never won a general election or even a contested leadership election within his own party. He is in power only in order to be in power. He is in power only because he believes he has long had a natural right to be prime minister. For many years he waited as a resentful dauphin, swallowing his envy and bile. And then, like the fruit of the medlar tree, he went rotten before he was ripe.
Gordon Brown is Labour’s Richard Nixon.… The buttoned-up suit, the mouth slightly agape, the physical awkwardness, the alarming smile which seems to appear from nowhere as if a button marked “smile” has been pressed in his head. —Robert Harris, The Sunday Times, September 10, 2006.
The author of Fatherland wrote those words as Brown was staging the near-incredible “My turn! My turn!” tantrum with which he disgraced the transition between Tony Blair and himself. And the Nixonian diagnosis has recurred to many minds since then, because of the discovery of a “dirty tricks” operation run at the very heart of Brown’s own government. “Filthy tricks” might be more like it: the prime minister’s chief political aide, a bloated and mediocre nonentity named Damian McBride, was found using official e-mail channels to spread the rumors that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, suffered from an embarrassing ailment; that his economics spokesman, George Osborne, had been caught with hookers and a dildo and photographed in drag; and so forth. (There was also a planted slur about Mr. Osborne’s wife that not even Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun was prepared to print.) This you might think was foul enough: using the taxpayers’ money to smear the opposition party with baseless insinuations. But what shocked me much more was how unshocked the Labour Party was. “Put it like this,” said a stalwart old comrade of mine. “The Tories and the press are only now finding out how Brown has been bullying and threatening his own colleagues.” Fat Boy McBride, of course, was given the heave-ho as soon as his picknose activity was unmasked, and it was claimed, as is customary, that he had acted alone and without permission from his boss. I have asked around a good deal and have not met or heard from anyone—anyone—who believes that this cover story is true. Instead, and this in a party that used to pride itself on open debate, you hear dreadful whispers about carpet-biting, furniture-hurling spasms by someone whose contorted face reproduces the awful slobbering mask of a weak king.
Ivan Lewis, a Labour M.P. and junior minister, developed a few mild criticisms of the Brown regime and suddenly discovered that news of indiscreet text messages of his, addressed to a female subordinate, had found its way from government channels to the gutter press. Martin Bright, political editor of my old lefty magazine the New Statesman, was effectively hounded out of his job because he was rash enough to object to the Labour machine that was then running the mayoralty of London.
Gordon had his fingers on the pedestal of fame, and he intended never to loose his grasp. —Alec Waugh, The Loom of Youth.
The true definition of corruption, it seems to me, is the diversion of public resources to private or politicized ends (see above). There are other and lesser definitions, such as milking the public purse or abusing the public trust by “creative accounting.” The cloudburst of lurid detail about the expenses racket, which has made the current Parliament into an object of scorn and loathing, is a cloudburst that has soaked members of all parties equally. However, the Brownite style is by far the most culpable. It was Brown’s people who foisted a Speaker on the House of Commons who both indulged the scandal and obstructed a full ventilation of it. As if that weren’t bad enough, Gordon Brown still resists any call to dissolve this wretched Parliament—a Parliament that is almost audibly moaning to be put out of its misery and shame—because he still isn’t prepared to undergo the great test of being submitted to the electorate. Say what you will about Tony Blair, he took on all the other parties in three hard-fought general elections, and when it was considered time for him to give way or step down, he voluntarily did so while some people could still ask, “Why are you going?,” rather than “Why the hell don’t you go?” For the collapse of Britain’s formerly jaunty and spendthrift “financial sector,” everybody including Blair is to blame. But for the contempt in which Parliament is held, and in which a once great party now shares, it’s Blair’s successor who is the lugubrious villain.
When I first met Gordon Brown, in the late 1970s in Scotland, we were both miles to the left of center. (What I remember best about him is his fingernails, which were gnawed down to the knuckle. Warning: Contents under pressure.) The Labour Party was in due course moved to the right, but not only, or not merely, to catch the votes and donations of the middle ground. Tony Blair, who supervised the makeover (and whose famous Chicago speech linking Slobodan Milošević and Saddam Hussein was delivered exactly 10 years ago), is still a figure who, even his enemies concede, has shown conviction and commitment.
Labour under Brown has forgotten even the meaning of such terms. The sweets and fruits of office are all that count. Take a single example. Brown’s allies leak to the press that the foreign secretary, David Miliband, is to be offered another job in a Cabinet “reshuffle.” Mr. Miliband then lets it be known that he has no intention of moving. So feeble is Brown’s position that he then retains, as the man responsible for Britain’s diplomatic relations, a person who clearly does not enjoy his own prime minister’s confidence in that important role. So, Britain’s allies and enemies both know at once that they are negotiating with a secretary of state who doesn’t count. But who cares about such a trifle? The survival of Brown and the retention of power are the main objectives, and even some of the cronies who hate and fear him are more afraid of the verdict of the voters.
Some of the elements of tragedy are present in Brown, as they were in Sir Anthony Eden, who fretted himself into misery while waiting for Winston Churchill to step down, and as they were in Richard Nixon, convinced that he had been robbed of the 1960 election. Like Eden and Nixon, Brown appears to have gone a little mad while in office. (He is also said to be gravely worried about losing the sight in his remaining eye.) But one’s natural sympathy is canceled by the realization that he is leading from behind, bribing his party to stay in line by clinging to their perks for just one more season, or one more year. The old Labour anthem had a couplet of especial scorn about “the weak and base / whose minds are fixed on pelf and place.”
Labour used to be a party of dissent, but now British policemen are to be seen on video as they mash puddles of blood out of demonstrators against the government and even out of bystanders who are not demonstrating at all. The inclination of traditional Labour supporters was perhaps not all that much in favor of monarchy, but Mr. Brown managed to insult the Queen, and the veterans of D-day on the Normandy beaches, for no better reason than that he wanted to hog the entire stage for himself. He got booed by the crowd on an occasion that is usually almost supernaturally silent, and then he contrived to make an idiot of himself by alluding to Omaha beach—a near-totemic name for anyone with a sense of history—as “Obama beach.” Enough is enough. The Labour Party must make up its mind to throw off and outlive this imposition, or else to endure it further and find itself a dishonorable grave.
As Gordon walked back alone, he had the unpleasant feeling that the best was over.… The friends of his first term … had all gone, scattered to the winds. He alone remained, and with a sudden pain he wondered whether he had not outlived his day, whether, like Tithonus, he was not taking more than he had been meant to take. —Alec Waugh, The Loom of Youth.
Christopher Hitchens is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.