Byline By M.J. Akbar : Gordon’s Knot
On the evening of 5 July, with the unerring instinct of an ass, I missed a great opportunity to become a sycophant of the new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. We were at the summer party of the Spectator in the garden of their new offices in London. There had been an unfamiliar stiffness at the entrance as invitation cards were checked, double-checked and ticked off in the manner of a functioning police station, but once inside it was again very British and very jolly. A very British fellow guest welcomed me to the Mad Mullah side of the fence upon being introduced and then described how his daughter had been converted to Islam. Apparently her maternal grandfather, a Muslim, had picked her up when she was born and whispered a prayer in her ear before he, a fulltime agnostic like most other Londoners, could do anything about it.
I escaped to the back of the garden, away from such moral dilemmas, to chat with old journalist friends, when a small gate near the hedge opened. Gordon Brown strode in without fuss and made straight for our group to greet my columnist friends. Here is what I wanted, very sincerely, to tell the new Prime Minister of Britain. "May I, Prime Minister, use the opportunity of this accidental meeting to say how relieved most of us are at the quiet, efficient, unfussy manner in which you have handled the terrorist attack at Glasgow airport? You refused to make political capital out of this nasty business. You set the tone for London and your country with your calm, reminding us that ‘phlegmatic’ is a British rather an English word. Within three days you actually reduced the threat perception level rather than pushing it up further. This may not seem very much, but the rest of us, particularly in the Muslim world, have seen how your predecessor, the unsurpassed drama queen Tony Blair, flooded every television channel with his quivering lip. Blair would have probably banned all transatlantic flights from Scotland, rushed across to visit George Bush, prohibited all carry-on luggage on every plane by now even while his home secretary debated the merits of more legislation to curb British freedoms."
In my imagination I see Gordon Brown listen intently, if modestly, to this fulsome praise, his eye lighting up only once, at the description of Blair as a drama queen, then summon the aide lurking pretty obviously two steps behind him, and ask him to take my mobile number so that he can sip at the fount of my genuflecting wisdom for the rest of his decade as Prime Minister.
Alas, the truth is different. I was more or less a silent bystander, not because one is tightlipped by temperament, but because I had absolutely no clue to the subject they were discussing. What do the high and mighty ask a Prime Minister at a social gathering? It would clearly be crass to discuss policy or war. They discussed the comparative merits of 11 Downing Street, Brown’s home as chancellor of exchequer for ten years, and 10 Downing Street, the famous official residence of British Prime Ministers. I know now, from the sidelines, that No. 10 has an extraordinary number of rooms behind that unassuming, even deceptively quiet facade. Had Brown actually moved in yet despite being PM for a week? No, not yet.
My cue to butt in. "You aren’t waiting until you’ve been properly elected, are you?" I suggested gingerly.
Over a lifetime of journalism, I have experienced my share of dirty looks. This one was brief, very brief, but unmistakeable. And a few seconds later Prime Minister Brown had moved on to a more salubrious group.
For those who might miss the point, Brown is a bit touchy about the fact that he has become PM through a mechanism of the House of Commons and the Labour Party, rather than the morally proper process of a general election. Be that as it may, let it not be said that a mere, fleeting dirty look put me off my admiration.
Within a week of being in office, Brown has altered the culture of power beyond recognition. I am writing this column on 7 July, the anniversary of the horrific London bombings that left 52 dead in underground trains and shattered a nation’s nerves. Brown remembered that moment with dignity and calm, recalling the pain of families who had lost their loved ones and reaffirming national resolve without stopping traffic or massaging tears. The clever manipulation of pseudo-hysteria, always carefully monitored to remain below the top rather than go over it, the continuous mobilisation of spin doctors and media hype, have suddenly vanished like a punctured bubble.
Gordon Brown used the word "change" eight times in the short speech he made the day he became Prime Minister. It is already evident what he meant. It is not simply the fact that he has created a Cabinet of young people who would probably not be considered old enough to lead the youth wings of Indian political parties (the new foreign secretary is only 41 years old, and certainly got his job as much for his youth as for the fact that he was publicly critical of Blair’s hirsute warmongering). There is no sophisticated finger-pointing, the kind in which you never actually raise your hand in any direction but nod so heavily that one would have to be a cretin to miss the meaning. Men of Indian origin are involved in the Glasgow outrage; that is well known. But an individual’s sins are not being transferred to a community or a country.
Where is Tony Blair? No one vanishes faster than yesterday’s Prime Minister. After a decade of media dominance he is nowhere. He can be glimpsed occasionally, bland and uncertain, lost in the withering fire of drawing room jokes. But you can still gauge the success of his extraordinary media management skills. Most people in Britain remain convinced that he is the new Peace Czar of the Middle East, even though both the White House and the European Union (more gently) have clarified that peace talks are outside his mandate, and that his only job is really as the new fund collector for Palestinian institutions.
Gordonian sobriety is certainly good governance, but does it also make for good politics? Blairite hype may be distasteful to columnists who do not have to get elected, but it won Blair and Labour three general elections. You do not argue with such a rate of success.
The answer to such a question is not available in the murky logic of an opinion or the opaque density of a government position. It can only be found through a general election. One of the finer points of British democracy draws a distinction between legality and legitimacy. Brown became Prime Minister through the support of Labour MPs. That is perfectly legal. But his tenure at 10 Downing Street will not become legitimate until it has been endorsed by the British electorate. It is Brown’s decision as to when he takes the legitimacy test. Some are urging that he go for an election as early as in October, particularly since he has a bounce that has taken Labour once again ahead of the Conservatives. That must be a hard call. When you have waited ten years to become PM you want to savour a little more of the satisfaction before risking a gamble. No matter what opinion polls might say, every politician knows that every election is a gamble.
Democracy is a huge casino. But that gamble is compulsory, not optional.
Gordon Brown will shift, in his mind and his heart, from No. 11 Downing Street to No. 10 only after the results of that gamble are known.