Gordon Brown, like all prime ministers, like all politicians, like all of us really, is over-reliant on the advice of a small group of people he thinks he can trust. In Brown’s case, these tend to be men who once worked as juniors in his office, having been hand-picked at a very young age. Douglas Alexander became Brown’s researcher and speechwriter when he was in his early twenties. So did Ed Miliband. Ed Balls joined Brown when he was only 27, after a spell at the Financial Times, and they have been joined at the hip ever since. Despite the fact that two of the three (Alexander and Balls) were deeply implicated in the disaster of the election-that-never-was, it is still this group that Brown turns to first (by all accounts, first thing in the morning) for guidance, reassurance and schemes of revenge. It means that Brown has become dependent on the advice of people who were once entirely dependent on him. This cannot be healthy.

Even more striking than Brown’s taste for attaching himself to his former intellectual bag-carriers is the fact that each of his three confidants has a very close relation in the upper reaches of British political life. At the time of writing, Alexander’s sister Wendy was still hanging on as leader of the Labour Party in Scotland. Balls’s wife, Yvette Cooper, sits with him in cabinet. Miliband’s brother, David, is foreign secretary. Brothers and sisters, husbands and wives: the Brown government is a family affair, and it marks a shift to ever more intimate political relationships at the centre of power, even compared to the days when Tony Blair was ruling the country with the aid of his former pupil master and his former flatmate (and perhaps his wife as well). Of course, politics has always been about personal connections and private vendettas, but the current narrowing of the political class has an almost 18th-century feel to it, as the circle from which the political elite is drawn becomes ever smaller.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in relation to their education – and this cuts across any differences between the main political parties. When Brown shuffles off the stage, British politics (or perhaps one should say English politics, since Scotland may be going its separate, but equally parochial way) will be in the hands of a generation of late thirty and early fortysomethings, almost all of whom went to the same university at roughly the same time and studied the same subject. As well as the two Milibands, Balls and Cooper, Jacqui Smith, Ruth Kelly, James Purnell, David Cameron and William Hague all went to Oxford and read PPE. The exceptions to this rule are George Osborne (Oxford, history), Boris Johnson (Oxford, classics), Michael Gove (Oxford, English) and a few, like Andy Burnham, Chris Grayling, Nick Herbert and Nick Clegg, who went to Cambridge. (Chris Huhne, incidentally, also read PPE at Oxford, but he is now in his fifties and therefore appears to be viewed by some Lib Dem members as already past it.) No doubt they were the leading political talents among their generation of students at their respective universities, but still, this seems like a pretty narrow pool of talent to be drawing from in the first place.

In Cameron’s case, the connections go even further back. He has opened the door to alumni from his old school: the Old Etonians in Cameron’s kitchen cabinet include the head of policy review, Oliver Letwin; his chief of staff, Edward Llewellyn; and his special adviser, Danny Kruger. At this point, I should make my own personal connections clear. I too went to Eton, at exactly the same time as David Cameron. It was a big school, and I don’t think I ever met Cameron – certainly I am not aware of ever having exchanged a single word with him. But I do remember him, simply because he was once described to me, at the time when we were doing our A-levels, as already being well connected politically and having serious ambitions to become prime minister one day. This was thought rare enough, even at such a big and grand school, to be worthy of comment. Now I have led a fairly sheltered life since, and no doubt should have got out more, but in the intervening twenty-odd years I have never had anyone else pointed out to me as wanting to be prime minister. So, in my narrow experience, the one person who was singled out at 18 as having the credentials to make it to the top of the greasy pole (and at 18, that can only mean having the appropriate mixture of ambition and contacts) is now on the verge of making it to the top of the greasy pole. Spooky, no?

When he became prime minister, Brown hoped to exploit misgivings about Cameron’s smooth and easy ride to the top by highlighting their respective educational backgrounds; hence Brown’s reverent description of his old school motto at Kirkcaldy High (‘I will try my hardest’) on the day he first entered No. 10, in implied contrast to Cameron’s (‘Floreat Etona’). Brown also wished to contrast his competence and pragmatic centrism with what he saw as the Tories’ lingering rigidity and prejudice. His was to be ‘a government of all the talents’, in order to make his opponents look as though they were on the ideological fringes. Yet as things have started to go wrong for Brown, this increasingly looks like a serious strategic mistake. Most commentators believe that the mistake lies in overplaying the issue of competence, which has left Brown vulnerable to events beyond his control and therefore to the incompetence of others (Northern Rock, Discgate). But the problem runs deeper than that. Governments that highlight competence are also exposed, when things go wrong, to the revelation that so much depends on so few people, most of whom seem to know each other, and many of whom might have hoped that their secret deals and connections would never make it into the public domain. The reason the David Abrahams funding scandal is so toxic coming after Northern Rock is that it gives the public another glimpse into the world of nods and winks that appears to make up so much of government business these days.

Ideology in politics, even of the mild kind, has the advantage of overlaying personal connections with something that dilutes them. It is no coincidence that Margaret Thatcher’s cabinets, even after they had been purged of their wets, were more diverse, intellectually and educationally, than Brown’s government is today. Nor should it be a complete surprise that as we move beyond the old ideological battles it is the children of the old ideologists (not just the Milibands, but Hilary Benn as well) who are well equipped to prosper. After all, when you strip the ideology out, you are still left with the contacts; Ed Miliband may have started working for Gordon Brown in his early twenties, but in his mid-teens he was to be found working in Tony Benn’s basement. Brown, to an even greater extent than Blair before him, seems to think that the post-ideological age in which we live requires a prioritising of competence and pragmatism over more grandiose or idealistic concerns. But post-ideological politics does not always bring competence to the surface; rather, it foregrounds the network of personal relationships on which judgments of competence ultimately depend. Brown does nothing to counter this by his habit of responding to each difficulty by setting up a new committee or inquiry, invariably chaired by one of the usual suspects from his hermetic little world: these are the people the prime minister can trust to tell him what went wrong, but the reason he can trust them is that he knows them personally, which is what makes everyone else so suspicious.

However, the problem here is not just to do with Brown’s temperamental difficulties in reaching out beyond his circle of acquaintance. His government, like any government these days, is up against one of the central facts of contemporary politics, which is that while the politicians have been busy nurturing their own personal networks, the public have been busy nurturing theirs, using the tools we all now have at our disposal. The internet is transforming politics, but not in the ways that were anticipated: we are not entering an age of e-democracy, or referendum by internet, or any of the other bogus and fantastical ideas that get floated from time to time. Instead, we are in the age of the social networking site, which allows everyone to make their own connections with the people with whom they have the most in common, and from whom they have the most to gain. In his fascinating, somewhat chilling book, Microtrends,* Mark Penn, the polling guru behind Hillary Clinton’s march on the White House, documents the fragmentation of the American public into multiple different groups and subgroups, each with its own specialised interests or shared outlooks: people addicted to plastic surgery, married couples who met on the internet, homeschoolers, Christian Zionists, ‘archery moms’ (a subset of the old ‘soccer moms’) and so on and on. It’s these narrower affiliations, existing beneath the traditional divides based on class, or race, or gender, that are increasingly being facilitated by the networking possibilities of the new information technology. Penn believes it is only by making a connection with these different groups that the politicians will be able to keep the public on side.

The question is, how? Karl Rove, who played a role in George W. Bush’s campaigns similar to the one Penn is playing in Hillary’s, believed that ideology remains crucial. Rove felt he needed (and believed that in Bush he had found) a candidate with a clear, simple and deeply divisive central message, which could then be tailored to touch on the disparate concerns of various micro-interest groups, particularly within the fissiparous world of American religion. Penn, by contrast, thinks that the key, over time, will be competence, above and beyond ideology. ‘The movement to watch is really the global Third Way movement,’ he says, ‘the triumph of pragmatic, independent thinking over left or right-wing ideology. It is the growth of mass media and communications that has fuelled it, and that gives voters more ability to judge the competence of their leaders and their policies. Though the internet has seemed to spawn more fragmented movements, the vital centre remains decisive.’

This ought to offer some comfort to Brown. But, for three reasons, I think the comfort may be illusory. First, it is not by chance that Penn has hitched his wagon to Hillary Clinton, who may exemplify the virtues of the pragmatic, post-ideological politician, but who has something more significant to recommend her too: the strongest name-recognition in American politics, plus her husband’s contacts book. Rove chose Bush Junior for much the same reasons. The fragmentation of American social life that Penn describes has gone hand in hand with an unprecedented narrowing of its political life, to the extent that two families may end up controlling the White House for an entire generation. Post-ideological politics is about competence in the way that pre-ideological politics was: it helps to be competent, but it helps even more to be born or married into families that give you a chance to demonstrate your competence. Moreover, family politics is in the end about the cyclical movements of fortune and fame, and when your star starts to set, it is very hard to get it to rise again, no matter how competent you are.

Second, America is still a relatively politicised society compared to the UK, in the sense that many social divisions (such as those based on religion, moral values and local identity) intersect with national political divisions, which gives national politicians something to hook their messages onto. This was Rove’s insight and it is far from clear that it has been superseded: Hillary, for all her pragmatism, remains a deeply divisive figure, and the way she negotiates those divisions will determine her fate at the polls. In Britain, it is much less obvious what national politics is about anymore, and much less apparent what there is for politicians to connect up with. This ought to leave the way clear for pragmatic centrists, who try to make a difference bit by bit. But instead it simply reinforces the sense in which these pragmatic centrists, with their obsessive interest in the minutiae of politics, are different from everyone else. In Microtrends Penn describes 75 separate subdivisions of American society and no doubt he could find a similar number in Britain if he looked hard enough. But in this country he would also have to include a 76th: people who think politics matters enough to make it their careers, a significant but statistically tiny subset of the general public. These are the people who currently run the country, and they increasingly look like a group apart. The more they harp on at us that we should appreciate what they do, the more they sound like any other special interest group that thinks it should be taken more seriously. But the point about the new social networks is that no one has to listen to anyone else’s anymore.

Finally, competence is always relative. Hillary Clinton has the huge advantage that she is seeking to replace an incompetent president who will bequeath her (if she gets there) a mess that will take some sorting out. If the British economy takes a sharp downturn next year, Brown too will have the opportunity to demonstrate that pragmatism, hard work and attention to detail can steady the ship. He is almost certainly better equipped to sort out any looming crisis than any of his rivals. But if the economy takes a nose-dive it is Brown who will get much of the blame, because he cannot distance himself from what he did as Blair’s chancellor, no matter how hard he tries. His reputation for competence is inexorably tied to the fate of the British economy, so that the more scope he has to show what he can do, the deeper trouble he will be in. Nailing his colours to the mast of competence was never going to do it for Brown. It simply left him a hostage to fortune, and exposed the extent to which his government was just as narrowly constituted as the Old Etonian network he tries to scorn. What Brown needed, what he still needs, is a bit of ideology, however mild, in order to dilute his personal connection to everything that happens in British politics. Without ideology, politics is too much about the prime minister and his little circle of friends. If that is the way it stays, he will find himself making way before long for David Cameron and his old school chums – though not me.

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