The wider tragedy of Gordon Brown: New Labour, the Murdoch press and the state of our democracy

What the Brown v Sun affair says about Labour, the wider left, and the sorry state of democracy in the UK

Gerry Hassan
12 November 2009

Gordon Brown is a troubled man so the prevailing wisdom goes. He does have his demons to seek, from his flawed personality to the ghost of Tony Blair that won’t quite leave the stage. He is widely seen in the media as an unattractive mixture of indecision, control freakery and paranoia.

In a matter of years he has been transformed from being ‘the Iron Chancellor’ who was feared by the Tories he dismissed with consummate ease such as Michael Howard and Michael Portillo, to being seen as an object of ridicule whose grasp of the most basic political acumen is called into question. Modern politics in this worldview is about in Barack Obama’s telling phrase, ‘the quality of authenticity’, and in this Brown is seen not to cut it unlike that nice Tony Blair and David Cameron.

Some of this is about Brown’s previously inflated reputation now being revisited and rectified. Thus, Brown has gone from being seen as a colossus to an incompetent in a matter of years, where surely the truth lies somewhere in between for both his stints as Chancellor and Prime Minister. Some of it is also that he has been about so long, the media are bored with him, and that his ascent to the top has coincided with the fag end of the New Labour era and numerous chickens coming home to roost.

In recent days things have gone from bad to worse for Brown. The anger, indignation and fury of Jacqui Janes at the loss of her 20 year old son Jamie touches all sorts of nerves. It reminds us the power of the ordinary voter who breaks through the bubble of politics. Remember Sharon Storer confronting Tony Blair in the 2001 election on NHS cancer treatment for her partner, and legendarily, Diana Gould completely throwing Margaret Thatcher on ‘Nationwide’ with her questioning of the sinking of the Belgrano in 1983.

Storer and Gould were sole operators, whereas Janes has solicited the support of ‘The Sun’ newspaper which has changed everything. Instead of being about a personal tragedy and Gordon Brown’s failure to do the most basic things – writing, spelling and sending notes and the related theme of the shambles of his Prime Ministerial Office – it has all got personal. The Tory press attacks on Brown at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday had the feel of the way Michael Foot was humiliated all those years ago. It has all become very nasty, very quickly.

It begs that a defence of sorts should be offered for Gordon Brown. Here is a man who has given his life to public duty and service. Brown is a decent man – who has got a bit lost – but believes he is still filled with a sense of moral mission, purpose and compass. Not for him the ostentatious, celebrity wannabe life of the Blairs, staying with rich friends, getting free holidays where they can with the jet set, and having your head turned by money and wealth.

‘The Sun’ has overstepped the mark by a mile here and indicated the reality that this is about a host of other deeper issues. Firstly, there is the relationship of ‘The Sun’ and Murdoch press to New Labour. One of the central pillars of the whole New Labour project was to keep ‘The Sun’ onboard and to this end Blair and Brown would wine and dine Murdoch and company and change their entire political mindset.

The Labour Party has always given ‘The Sun’ a mythical status and power from the point they lost the 1992 election and the paper claimed, ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’ and Labour bought the hype. This has all changed with the paper recently announcing it will no longer support Labour and instead throw its weight behind the Conservatives. The recent news coverage must be the first of many because the paper famously does not do anything by half measures.

We also know that ‘The Sun’s’ conversion to the Cameron Conservatives has not been gained at no cost to our democracy or the Tories. Instead, we already know that the recent Tory U-turn on the Euro referendum involved detailed discussions between senior Tories and News International to keep the latter from attacking this change.

Second, there are the huge issues of Britain’s post-imperial overstretch, one of Tony Blair’s many celebrated ‘legacies’. This is debated most often in public and the press as about the shortcomings of British soldiers’ kit, lack of equipment or scarcity of helicopters, all of which have made an appearance in the debate on Jamie Janes death.

What is totally avoided and has been in the coverage of the last few days is that Britain has signed itself up thanks to Blair to two unwinnable wars. Our armed forces have already been humiliated and driven out of Southern Iraq, and we are now involved in fighting an even more futile war in Afghanistan.

It seems to have uncanny resemblances to the latter stages of South Vietnam: American arrogance leading to supporting a corrupt, discredited government in an ill-defined mission with no end point leading to regional instability. The difference is that Wilson kept us out of Vietnam, whereas Blair enthusiastically signed up to be the junior partner in this American imperial venture in a war without end.

Domestically there is underneath all the fury and noise a wider political tragedy which ‘The Sun’ will not touch, and that is the tragedy of Gordon Brown, a man of decency who has in many respects got lost and diminished himself, but which is not just a personal story.

Instead, it is a much more sad, serious and long term one, for his experience mirrors the crisis of confidence and belief which inhabits the entire Labour Party. To put it bluntly this is a party which sold its soul for office and power, and which ‘The Sun’ and others gladly aided it in. Just don’t expect to read it in most of the press.

This brings us back to the narrow prism of political choice available to us in the forthcoming UK election, which will not address the big questions, whether it is on the economy, public spending, politicians’ behaviour or our foreign policy.

What our election will be filled with is the aura of a TV reality show with various candidates learning the lessons of Tony Blair, trying to inherit his aura and appear as telegenic, charismatic and post-ideological. It is a deceit and close to being a fraud, used by our political classes to subvert the democratic processes and prevent the big issues from breaking into open debate which much of our media will collude in.

Gordon Brown has been a willing accomplice in all of this, but he stands to pay a price for it as the incumbent and someone who is not a natural in soapbox democracy.

What we seem to have settled for in the words of American political commentator David Greenberg is ‘the paradox of authenticity’ in our politics whereby our leaders ‘present a manufactured version of themselves which gives the pretence of being authentic’.

Maybe some will see this account as a little too easy on Gordon Brown, but his tragedy, starting out from honourable intentions, has to be seen in the wider context of what has happened to the Labour Party and the centre-left, and the diluting, diminishing and trashing of our democratic traditions and ideals.

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and policy analyst. He is author and editor of over a dozen books on Scottish and UK politics, whose latest is ‘The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power’ just published by Edinburgh University Press £19.99. Gerry can be contacted at:

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