Saturday, 14 May 2011

One year on from Brown’s Citizens UK speech

Gordon Browns’ eve-of-election speech in May 2010 to Citizens UK was easily the best of his premiership, and must rank among the best in his career. Fiery, crusading and sincere it was a brief glimpse of the brilliance that the faithful always told us disbelievers was there. Had the preceding years not been so different and so the election result quite as catastrophic, it would easily be seen as one of the defining political speeches of recent times. As it was, its one year anniversary passed by completely unnoticed last week. In fact, the speech doesn’t even feature in Steve Richard’s totemic history of Brown, Whatever It Takes. But I think it’s worth taking a look at again, as it suggests a few things: about Brown, his party – yes, but also centre-left government in general.

On a purely technical level the speech is pretty exemplary. It builds momentum and a sense of urgency with rhetorical tricks such as triple repetition (a la Thatcher’s "No, No, No" or Blair’s "weak, weak, weak"): "When people say…when people say…when people say"; "you will always find in me a friend, a partner, a brother" and so on. The quick but consistent pace at which it moves means the past (civil rights, anti-apartheid), the present (living wage, Obama) and the personal (Brown’s family) are effortlessly woven together where it’s so easy to get it wrong and look crass or opportunist – ask Ed Miliband after his TUC address.

These are all age-old devices, but the reason they work for Brown is because the delivery feels so genuine and passionate - confident but not choreographed or staggered in the way so many political speeches are these day, no inbuilt pauses for applause or for focused grouped soundbites to sink in. Brown subsequently achieves what most modern politicians can only dream of: to appear ‘on our side’, to be inspiring, even poetic - to deliver a political sermon in a very secular age. It’s a testament in my view to Brown’s status as the most fascinating, complicated politician of his generation that this all came from the mouth of the same clunky, emotionally constipated bloke-on-the-telly everyone became used to; "an analogue politician in a digital age" as Cameron once chided him.

But it’s the politics of it which are most interesting to me. Look at the actual words he constantly uses – "fight", "march", "movement", "community". These are all phrases that would give ‘Third Wayers’ and triangulaters a heart attack. They’re also the diametric opposite of the a-political, ‘father of the nation’ image he had been determined to maintain through his premiership. Where previously Brown tried to meet the Tories inheritance tax cut half-way, here he clearly denounces it and builds that opposition into his own world view. For proof, compare the different word clouds (I know I should leave the house more) below of this speech and his conference speech just eight months prior, which is instead dominated by the more recognisable and vacuous New Labour touchstones of "change", "new", "choice", a sense of empowerment and place substituted for the more expressionless "country", "Britain", "world" and so on. Both rhetorically and politically, Brown had let go.

Now I know he was very much preaching to the converted with Citizens UK, but I’m not convinced it would put ‘swing voters’ off in the way many may claim – or certainly no more than he already had done so. I think most British people can countenance a bit of aggression and tub-thumping as long as it’s perceived as owing to passion rather than pantomime (think PMQs). Nothing Brown said was too abstract and its underlying moral convictions would be shared by most, I think.

In exact policy terms the speech may have reflected the rather tired nature of Labour’s manifesto, but the section from 6:00-6:49 does have the beginning of a decent narrative on public services: one that goes beyond being transactive/technocratic but also rejects Cameron’s false dichotomy between state and society, by placing government investment and community alongside one another where they belong ("building together, investing…"; "your hospitals, your schools, your children’s centres upon which communities are built").

Finally, there’s a whole generation who came of political consciousness during the fag end of the Blair years who – if, like me, they weren’t born into a Labour family – came to see Labour as the establishment party. Daft I know, but they certainly looked, acted and sounded like it to us at the time. This is just a faint echo of what a new study shows is the biggest problem social democratic parties in Europe face: people simply do not trust them to challenge invested interests anymore. Above all else the success of Brown’s speech, with its insurgent tone on inequality and poverty, shows centre-left parties that just because you’re in government doesn’t mean you have to become synonymous with the establishment, or even make peace with it. You can still be constantly at war with the status quo and constantly campaigning against the forces which make it up – you can still be part of a movement, essentially ("Let’s march, together")*.

Rescuing the standing of social democracy may be the only bigger task than rescuing that of Brown’s – at least we can be pretty sure Brown’s decline has bottomed out. But whatever exact form centre-left renewal ends up taking, it must surely start by trying to resuscitate what briefly sparked into life on that Monday night in South London last May.

Gordon Brown speech to Citizens UK, May 2010

Gordon Brown speech to Labour party conference, September 2009

*Incidentally it’s been noted before that some of Obama’s problems up until recently came from ignoring this: he never defined himself against Wall Street, for instance, even though public opinion permitted him to, he never harnessed his unprecedented campaign resources (and ethos) in government and so on. Anyone more tuned in to US politics than I am these days got any thoughts on this?

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The royal wedding and why Britain needs to grow up

It’s good to know that amid the fawning frenzy that passed for balanced media coverage of Friday’s royal wedding, the 20% of us who identify as republicans did eventually receive some representation in the emerging pictures. The above, now famous image somehow manages to capture our position within the nation perfectly. As the newly-wed couple loom large on the balcony, a wonderfully stroppy looking girl is hunched over at the bottom of the picture, looking like she’s been forced into a dress she didn’t want to wear, covering her ears to block out the hysteria and presumably wanting the whole thing to end as quickly as possible!

To be honest, I think that little girl may have been the most mature person on the mall. It certainly wasn’t a good day to be in that 20%, with near demented levels of celebration accompanied by much dick swinging from the right (e.g here, here and particularly here). Many have asked republicans why we can’t just put the politics to bed for a day and enjoy the spectacle of two people who love each other getting hitched. I can only speak for myself, but for me the frustration goes wider than the celebration of servitude to desiccated, archaic and unelected rule. My bewilderment goes wider still than at just the collective blindspot it seems to represent in the nation’s supposed love of fairness and meritocracy. First and foremost, it’s about an entire conservative establishment given renewed reason for hope.

Our upper chamber in this country is entirely unelected and still contains members there by virtue of bloodline or what god they believe in, our lower chamber is dominated by the executive and elected via a creaking electoral system, and both are governed by impenetrable layers of convention and pomp which determine everything from the daft language members are required to address themselves in to parliamentary procedure itself. Nowhere is there a written constitution codifying limits to executive power or enshrining the political and economic rights citizens can expect to receive.

This has long been past fit for purpose in the 21st century, and is comparable to virtually no other democratic country. It is profoundly undemocratic, elitist and at least contributes to the disaffection with politicians which is such grist to the anti-republican mill (“You don’t want President Blair, do you?” they snort).

But it’s the monarchy which keeps the lid on this whole ludicrous, creaking constitutional arrangement - both formally and discursively. Almost every attempt or suggestion at decent constitutional reforms meets with a status quo patrolled by exactly the same sort of self-satisfied, whimsical bunkem paraded over the last few weeks: what we have is “quirky but peculiarly British”, “it works”, “it’s tradition”, ad nauseum.

The laughable notion that the royals are ‘just like us’, or that Middleton’s ascendency to the aristocracy represents a vindication of social mobility, is also in its own way quietly pernicious. Through personalising the institution it quite obviously masks the unimaginable disparities in wealth and influence between the average member of the royal family and the average Briton, including the Middletons. It also in its own small way serves those who want to bury discussion about similar inequalities in wider society and especially the still resoundingly white, male, upper-middle class nature of our political and legal establishment. We shouldn’t be surprised that wealthy, crusty old twerps like Nicky Haslam have taken to the air since Friday lunchtime to announce, “I hope that the English will now drop this terrible class consciousness about middle class and working class. We’re all commoners except the Royal Family” (26m50s in).

The point here is that the monarchy is a fundamentally political construct. I’m not sure everyone – particularly those in my generation - who celebrated yesterday so fervently entirely understand that; that what they are buying in to when they line the streets for a look at The Dress or flaunt a bit of ‘kitch’ merchandise is not a mere figurehead or a bit of quirky nostalgia, it is an entire political order. Hence the crowing of the right (and that Toby Young piece is worth linking to again as the best example).

It is also an utterly bizarre, outdated view of Britishness. Since when was it British to revel in being a complete anachronism within the democratic world? More to the point, the supposedly ‘positive image’ the monarchy reinforces is only that of us as the curious, crumpet-eating eccentrics popular in American mystique. But since when did this align with most people’s experiences of day-to-day reality in 2011 Britain? And since when was just being seen the same as being taken seriously? There’s an element of tragedy here - of glorifying vessels of our autocratic and imperial past (military uniforms et al) because it mausolates images of a time long gone, a time when we took up a place as the superpower at the front of the world’s stage. It’s like a Brit in America who indulges in stereotype by suddenly developing a far more accentuated, tweed accent than he uses at home, enjoying rather than cringing every time he’s excitedly asked to pronounce “bath” or “city”! It all speaks not to our pride in Britain, but to our lack of confidence.

Isn’t it time we grew up a bit as a nation? Isn’t it time we let go, and brought what it means to be British into the 21st century? There’s so much that we can lay claim to being proud of (the NHS, broadcasting and music, literature) without the need to cling in unashamed deference to a crumpled, archaic and completely insane bunch of aristocrats – or other equally tatty clich├ęs of our heritage - which, in the grand scheme of things, make us look ridiculous and sets back democratic advance.

Maybe I should calm down a bit. Perhaps, as Dan Hodges says, some of us should just relax and learn to pick our battles a little better. But I just can’t help feeling that in a culturally rich, complicated and alert 21st century country, we can do better – that’s all. I’m not angry, Britain, I’m just disappointed.