A 'dishonesty of the conscientious': Gordon Brown’s tragedy

The literature of human fall and frailty illuminates the political fate of Britain’s prime minister.   

Christopher Harvie
25 February 2010

IIn the dark days of 1940, Winston Churchill was provoked by the pious gloom of John (Lord) Reith to mutter: “Who will rid me of this Wuthering Height?” Reith, the austere Scots former director-general of the BBC, was serving as minister of information in Neville Chamberlain’s government; he was demoted after Churchill replaced his boss as prime minister, and Britain’s second-world-war effort got serious.

It is not a good precedent for Gordon Brown, who once claimed to be Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff, and on another occasion Joseph Conrad’s erratic navigator Captain MacWhirr. But Britain’s prime minister has in the dying days of an exhausted parliament more about him than the bearing (“a big boy did it and ran away”) of the average failing politician. If his predecessor Tony Blair resembles an up-market version of the dodgy east-London dealer Arthur Daley (“I’m a regular guy” / “It’s a fair cop, guv”), Brown turns up with his very own ampitheatre. Is he Thomas Hardy’s Michael Henchard? Robert Louis Stevenson’s Henry Durie? Or most terrifying of all, John Gourlay in George Douglas Brown’s Scottish classic The House with the Green Shutters, the carter of Barbie whose arrogance when faced with the challenge of the railway destroys first firm and then family? 

Greek tragedy was about the overreach and punishment of rulers, but in the frame of states and diplomacy: and was written to purge the emotions. The greatest Greek theatre at Epidauros was an annex to a hospital. Political tragedy hasn’t the cold symmetry of the Greeks; in Shakespeare’s Roman plays or English histories the heroes are made contemptible by pettiness and miscalculation before they face - and sometimes outface - death.   

Gordon Brown's downfall fits into this context, which is also that of Gourlay, trapped by historical change. Brown gained his “things”  - his share of power, mainly economic, in the Labour-government-to-come - through the pact with shallow, plausible Blair after the death in May 1994 of the properly monarchical John Smith. This partition cost effective cabinet government: the kernel of the British state. Brown attempted to restore Britain's status by dramatic financial jugglery - off-balance-sheet “private-finance initiative” (PFI) deals, the £21-billion coup of auctioning off mobile-phone wavebands, the lure of “light-touch” regulation - but underestimated the amoral greed of his partners and the limits of his own power. This brought perhaps-terminal disaster. What remains of the United Kingdom business class has cashed in its bonuses and quit, leaving the country to the tacky philanthropy of David Cameron’s vacuous Conservatives and after them the whims of European and Chinese magnates (see Broonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown [Verso, 2010]).  


WB Yeats translated from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, where the incestuous king finally dies, to close the circle of the “mechanical accident” of the first world war, and Ireland’s own small-scale, obsessive conflicts, already presented in the tragic proletarian drama of Seán O’Casey.

From Yeats’s The Tower (1928): 

“Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;

Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;

Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,

Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,

As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.”

In Sophocles' play the exiled, blinded king uses the prophecy that the place where he dies will be blessed, and barters a peace: a redemption that requires poise, ritual, memory. But Brown's economic and cultural failure, the decadence of cash-nexus London, and the dishonour of his successors, wiped out the past, showing the absurd, accidental way that great powers expire: re-enacting O’Casey’s “the world’s in a terrible state of chassis” - which, cleverly, might mean chaos or stasis. 

Shakespeare’s tragedies came on stage at the same time as the “city comedies’ of Ben Jonson et al., all about dealers as bags of greed and lust. Is Brown there, in the The Merchant of Venice, the nearest that Shakespeare got to the genre? Lorenzo, one of the young aristo winners, reflects on Shylock the outsider Jew:  

“The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;

The motions of his spirit are dull as night

And his affections dark as Erebus:

Let no such man be trusted.”

Yet Shylock’s fall remains more disturbing than Lorenzo’s philosophy.


Brown had his chances. “We must manufacture or die”, he wrote in 1989, only to opt for casino-capitalism, housing-speculation, motoring, sport and shopping. Now the UK faces partition at the hands of the European industrial powers, maybe the Americans and Chinese. The City’s bonus-boys make Dickens’ Gradgrind in Hard Times look an old softie. But they sit on the cashbox, daring the government to use criminal sanctions against them. In 1931, Owen Philipps (Lord Kylsant) - the boss of British shipping, and of that intricate combination which reached from iron- and coal-mines through steelworks to shipyards, was jailed for actions which reeked more of panic and incompetence than of thievery. No such fate awaits those who used “light-touch” supervision, tax-havens and creative accounting to rob employees, shareholders and taxpayers. Instead a failing press ridicules parliament for the expenses scandal, though the amount totted up by MPs on the take is only a small fraction of the City’s loot. Britain is ending, not with a bang but a giggle.    

Farce, pantomime and deceit are rarely distant from human breakdown. Ask the Victorians. Blair-and-Brown conjure up manipulative, sentimental Donald Farfrae against the awkward Henchard in Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge, or the intestinal feud of the Durie brothers, sinuous Jacobite James and honest Hanoverian Henry, in Stevenson’s Master of Ballantrae, in which “that dishonesty of the conscientious” ultimately strikes the latter down. 


To the conservative Yeats, tragedy was no longer purgative when the machine ruled: “Some fool has driven his car on the wrong side of the road. That is all.” With Brown, altruism twines with delusion. Above North Queensferry his eyrie-like house reviews ships, ports, the great bridge: the history of the place from Adam Smith - and before him the “skeely skipper” Sir Patrick Spens, mythical pioneer of Scots trade, whose fate both literary economists would know: 

“Half ower, half ower, from Aberdour

’Tis thirty fathoms deep,

And there lies bold Sir Patrick Spens,

With the Scots lords at his feet.”

At the mouth of the firth irrupts North Berwick Law, where William Archer translated Ibsen, any of whose plots could be housed in the ports of Fife or Lothian. Paul Scofield at the National Theatre in 1996 in one of his greatest roles almost predicted New Labour’s fate in Henrik Ibsen’s penultimate play John Gabriel Borkman. The dying  banker Borkman, jailed for fraud, struggles up to a headland to review his “Kingdom”: steamers, factories, and the gold he has animated to build them:

“That blast is the breath of life to me. That blast comes to me like a greeting from subject spirits. I seem to touch them, the prisoned millions; I can see the veins of metal stretch out their winding, branching, luring arms to me. I saw them before my eyes like living shapes, that night when I stood in the strong-room with the candle in my hand. You begged to be liberated, and I tried to free you. But my strength failed me; and the treasure sank back into the deep again.”

Borkman’s heart gives out and he dies. To stockholders in RBS or HBOS, whose shares had crashed by as much as 80%, Brown, as well as the boardrooms, must have seemed that guilty. In Edinburgh in someone shied a brick at the banker Fred Goodwin’s front window, which was “Mob Rule!” to the press, although he was by then in a Mediterranean villa.  

Tragedy requires either big men on a small stage, or at least before the mirror of remembered pride. Now, pride is “marked to market”. About Brown’s “latter days” (my original title) John Ruskin, Edinburgh merchant’s son - experimental about economics, agnostic about empire - looks like having the last word

“Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruins; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction.”     

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