Socialism is a religion - and Gordon Brown is no messiah
Gordon Brown belongs to an era when people voted for the idea of socialism. Today they need a charismatic leader, like Tony Blair, to sell it to them
Gordon Brown is a victim of the fact that progressive politics has become personality-dependent, charisma-driven, messianic almost.
It used to be that left-leaning people were persuaded by the big idea of democratic socialism, and therefore gave their vote to the leader of the political party that espoused it. He didn't have to be inspiring. The idea was inspiring. He just had to seem like a competent representative of this political creed. Attlee is the obvious example - and John Smith is another: bank-manager types who seemed like humble servants of their grand cause.
As socialist ideology was dismantled, the leader's ability to communicate a vision became all-important. The socialist vision became more like a religion, dependent on belief.
Tony Blair was essentially promising socialism by faith alone, without the old dogmas and legalism of that quintessentially 'works-based' religion. For a while his vision seemed to infect the nation, but this sense petered out, and the idealism seemed to lack substance.
Brown’s tragedy is that personality has become more important than ideology
The vision was over-reliant on shaman-Blair. His passionate conference-sermons showed the force of his faith, but that faith wasn't really representative of anything wider - he was a pope without a church.
Brown wanted to return to the old model, in which it is the truth of the cause that matters, not the charm of the leader. But this was impossible: once the electorate is used to being charmed, it wants more of the same (but better).
This is really Brown's tragedy, perfectly illustrated by his decision to bring back Peter Mandelson and now his appointment of his own Alastair Campbell figure, in the form of Simon Lewis: that during his time in politics the game changed, making personality more important than ideology. Were it not for this shift, Brown could have been a new Attlee, with added intellectual weight, and a bit of dark brooding mystery thrown in.
The painful irony is that Brown so obviously is a conviction politician: he does have a serious moral vision. He has tried to highlight this in various ways, from talking of his father's sermons to praising Thatcher's style. The problem is that he lacks the ability to inspire us with his vision; it is lodged within him like an old injury. He lacks the slickness to make his vision public.
Does this trend, of the triumph of the visionary leader over party ideology, not apply to the right as well? Yes, but less so. Conservatism is more flexible; it is able to make a virtue of stolid plodding pragmatism, as John Major demonstrated. It is a less faith-dependent and more realistic creed. And yet, as Thatcher showed, it can also do conviction, passion, faith.
David Cameron has been capitalising on this flexibility. On the one hand he exudes honest pragmatism, a very English suspicion of ideology. But on the other hand his Blairish charm gives this pragmatism an aura of idealism. How Brown must detest his antagonist, who has the very gift he lacks. ·
Comments are now closed on this article