Short Cuts

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Why do politicians write books? Sometimes money is the simple answer. Disraeli and Churchill were both scribbling before they entered Parliament, and Churchill ended with more than one small fortune through some startling and, on occasion, clandestine publishing and movie contracts, as David Reynolds has shown in his riveting In Command of History.

Then there is self-justification after retirement, which almost always produces memoirs of numbing boredom: I assume – or hope – that no one alive has actually read every page of all the volumes published under Attlee’s, Eden’s and Macmillan’s names. (Eden partly redeemed himself in the last years of his life by writing a real book, Another World, a haunting account of his first twenty years from country-house boyhood to the horror of the Western Front.) Another genre is the job application or campaign autobiography. Every American aspirant to high office has to produce something on the lines of ‘My Struggle, My Vision’, ranging in quality from the not at all bad, such as Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, to the simply intolerable: look no further than It Takes a Village by Hillary Clinton.

But Gordon Brown doesn’t need to write a job application. The spavined and gelded Parliamentary Labour Party has just anointed him by acclamation, and he thus becomes the first Labour leader in more than seventy years – and the first prime minister in more than fifty – to succeed without even the appearance of a contest. The publication of Brown’s Courage: Eight Portraits (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is more or less coincidental, but maybe the book has another purpose. Brown might wish in some indirect fashion to dissociate himself from the follies and failures of the Blair years, in which, notably Iraq, he is of course deeply complicit. And while we all know he’s clever, he may also feel the need to demonstrate that he’s likeable, or at least that he’s a member of the human race.

Alas for the result. Along with every other justified accusation, the most depressing thing of all about New Labour has been its sheer platitudinous vapidity. Blair’s first act, supported by Brown, was to replace Clause Four of the old party constitution with a far less lucid declaration of ‘aims and values’ which might have been the mission statement of a multinational company keen to parade its social conscience. Even if Blair has no considered political ideology, ‘he holds to a set of values,’ one votary has said, ‘fairness, tolerance, decency,’ thereby distinguishing him from the rest of us, with our passion for unfairness, intolerance and indecency.

In the same way, Brown assures us how much he reveres Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi; it might have been more interesting to denounce any or all of these. The title echoes John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, but that book did include some men by no means universally admired: George Norris, who attacked the Wilson administration’s infringement of neutrality during the Great War, or Robert Taft, who criticised the Nuremberg Trials as retroactive justice. In Brown’s book, there isn’t a page that anyone would find controversial or objectionable, unless there are places where Raoul Wallenberg and Nelson Mandela are despised. The treatment is anodyne even when there might be scope for detached assessment.

Now that not one person in a hundred who passes Edith Cavell’s statue opposite the National Portrait Gallery has any idea who she was, it might be worth retelling her story, if not in this pious dominie’s manner – ‘What was it about Edith Cavell that opened her eyes to suffering so that she felt it so keenly?’ She is famous not for her life but for her death in 1915, when the Germans court-martialled and shot her in Brussels, where she worked as a nurse, for helping British soldiers escape, ‘a patriot to the last’, as Brown writes; her ‘duty was to humanity, and her legacy is its triumph’ (a passage characteristic of his style, by the way: does ‘its’ refer to ‘humanity’ or ‘duty’?).

But he doesn’t discuss the larger implications of her case. On the one hand Robert Graves recorded in Goodbye to All That the hard-bitten view of his brother-officers in the trenches that the Germans were entitled to shoot her as a franc-tireur. On the other, Brown also overlooks her actual political ‘legacy’, the drastic impact of her execution, especially in the United States, where George Wesley Bellows painted the Murder of Edith Cavell; her death was not the least cause of American entry into the war eighteen months later.

Plainly she displayed great bravery, as did Bonhoeffer, likewise facing execution, or Mandela imprisoned in South Africa or Aung San in Burma. But isn’t courage a neutral quality? As we saw all too vividly, Saddam Hussein also faced his death with composure. Another of Brown’s heroes is Robert Kennedy. But, quite apart from the fact that Brown is evasive about his collaboration with Joseph McCarthy, he doesn’t show why he was braver than other ambitious politicians at the time, or why that mattered.

Although Profiles in Courage won a Pulitzer Prize and burnished JFK’s illusory intellectual reputation, it was mostly the work of Theodore Sorensen, which might prompt unworthy suspicions as to how much of Courage Brown wrote. But maybe it is all his. I was put in mind of what Evelyn Waugh said about Churchill’s books, which, ‘though highly creditable, for a man with so much else to occupy him, do not really survive close attention’. Perry Anderson has glumly observed that ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ seem to be the only words of E.P. Thompson’s that anyone now remembers, but even that has eluded Brown, who attributes the phrase to A.J.P. Taylor. This is a mistake a competent ghost-writer might have avoided.

But our new prime minister should be able to fend off any doubts about authorship. Cavell ‘sought to replicate those exacting standards and instil an equally uncompromising dedication to duty, vocation and pride into her student nurses’. ‘For amid the depths of suffering caused by our own inhumanity and the recklessness of nature and accident, we have also witnessed its relief by the generosity, compassion and heroism of courageous people.’ If any ghost had the skill to echo such faultlessly plodding banality, then he is the one who would deserve a prize.