Triumph of the Termites

Tom Nairn

  • BuyThe End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley
    Viking, 802 pp, £25.00, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 670 91851 5
  • BuyWhat Went Wrong, Gordon Brown?: How the Dream Job Turned Sour edited by Colin Hughes
    Guardian, 294 pp, £8.99, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 85265 219 0
  • BuyBroonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown by Christopher Harvie
    Verso, 206 pp, £8.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 1 84467 439 8

Much of the tale is conveyed by the covers. A sad, thoughtfully dithering photo of the prime minister fronts What Went Wrong, Gordon Brown? The cover of Christopher Harvie’s book features a cartoon from the Independent: an apocalyptic lightning flash strikes and anoints David Cameron, while Brown and Alistair Darling flee London as Parliament quakes against the background of a setting sun. Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party is less dramatic: we see Brown, Mandelson and Blair in a morning-after sprawl; Brown’s big toe sticks out of his sock. The Guardian compilation reminds readers how high expectations were when Brown took over. ‘Master of his universe’, Rawnsley wrote in the Observer then; Peter Hennessy could recall nothing on this scale since ‘the cross-party war cabinet in 1940’; and Jackie Ashley thought Brown’s early success showed ‘how deeply he can reach into Tory England’.

By September last year, however, Martin Kettle was summing up how little it had all amounted to: ‘Brown is going down fighting. But he is going down. In the end this speech [to the Labour Party Conference] was a rage against the dying of the light.’ Ashley had advised him to pack his bags back in June: ‘He could still go with dignity. The day he does, his reputation will begin to rise again. That day should be today … The people won’t ever warm to him, and they no longer admire him.’ The earlier enthusiasm had been for a possible saviour, seen, oddly, as being from outside Blairland: a conscientious Scots Presbyterian, able to resist City capitalism and the ominous remains of neoliberalism. When Brown’s moralism failed – and it failed utterly, as Broonland makes clear – then ‘Tory England’ became a field of broken reeds, awaiting its Conservative harvester. No wrecker can be hated as much as a failed saviour, above all when he is known for his resonant promises.

In Broonland Harvie restates the thesis he first presented in A Floating Commonwealth (2008), which sought to move on from the half-century of left v. right politics, of ‘class politics, factored through Parliament’, that lasted from 1926 until the triumph of New Labour in 1997. The articulation of British politics since has overemphasised personality, temperament, displays of charisma or bad moods – recently we’ve even had debates about ‘bullying’ in Downing Street. In a world where larger shifts seem too difficult or dangerous, petty quirks and grudges become too salient and obsessions develop over personality traits and failings: this is the court of the fallen and frustrated depicted by Rawnsley. Those who have lapsed irretrievably from history’s mainstream just can’t accept their fate: this is an epitome of the Brown leadership years. The high point of his first prime ministerial visit to Washington was a declaration that ‘no power on earth’ could separate Britain and the US and destroy the special relationship. No power, that is, except the weevils and termites all about him in Downing Street and beyond, all those unworthy of Great British transcendence. The termites have multiplied remorselessly throughout his reign, and now appear to include much of the UK electorate. I doubt if most of them think they are deserting grandeur: rather it appears to have deserted them.

A Floating Commonwealth depicted a Britain made lopsided by the division between its centre and a far-flung ‘arc’ to the north and west of London. British capitalism’s mutation into an epicentre of global finance-capital provided the conditions for a very special form of deindustrialisation. Yet England is now a country in its afterlife, unable either to revive its pre-eminence or resign itself to loss. Hence its helpless plunge into imagined community with its global successor, America. Gordon Brown has made himself the prophet of the resultant Britishness: an indurate camp-follower forever exhorting brotherhood. Englishness, above all, has found itself configured by this dependency.

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