Saturday, February 27, 2010

The 'character question'

During the course of his long career, Gordon Brown can have faced few more humiliating episodes than having to run the gauntlet of journalists last Monday shouting the question: "Are you a bully, Prime Minister?"

A man who has dedicated his political life to the pursuit of social justice, and whose concern for the underdog is genuine, found himself accused of unforgiveable behaviour towards junior staff in no position to fight back.

Whatever the truth of the situation – and it has to be said that Downing Street’s carefully-worded denials were somewhat less than convincing – the revelations by journalist Andrew Rawnsley have certainly done Mr Brown no favours.

They do not make him a bad man. But as the election looms, they certainly raise questions about his ability to deal with the pressures of his role, and hence whether he is up to another five years in office.

Talk of the 'character question' in relation to Prime Ministers invariably leads to speculation about how some of our great leaders of the past may have fared under the kind of media spotlight today’s politicians have to endure.

Was Winston Churchill a bully, for instance? Almost certainly yes, but arguably some of those self-same character traits helped us win the Second World War.

Would the sexually rapacious David Lloyd George have survived the kind of intense scrutiny of his private life that modern-day politicians undergo? Almost certainly not.

And just what on earth would the tabloids do to a latter-day Gladstone who was found to be in the habit of touring round the streets of London at night trying to rescue fallen women from a life of vice?

So I am always tempted to allow politicians a certain amount of leeway in terms of their individual character flaws, on the grounds that these can and often do go hand in hand with genius.

That said, the public is surely right to expect its leaders to treat those around them with respect, and to ensure their private behaviour matches their publicly-stated ideals.

What saved Mr Brown this week was the intervention of the rather aptly named Christine Pratt, of the National Bullying Helpline, who unwisely disclosed that employees of 10 Downing Street had rung her supposedly confidential service.

It enabled the Labour spin machine to turn its fire on her, thus distracting the media’s attention from the scene of the original alleged misdemeanour.

To my mind, though, there were two aspects of the story that were particularly damaging. Firstly, the timing.

Amid growing signs of economic recovery, Labour has been steadily pegging back the Tories’ poll lead which last weekend was back down to six points in one survey.

In an intervention that might have led Monday’s news bulletins had the “bullying” story not overshadowed it, former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine moreorless admitted we were heading for a hung Parliament.

This week’s events will have given the Tories some respite from this apparent attack of the jitters.

By far the most damaging aspect of the accusations, however, is that they reinforce an already widely-held view about Mr Brown’s style of politics.

The Prime Minister may or may not have “bullied” Number 10 staff. What his people have undoubtedly done down the years is use the black arts of spin to batter a succession of fellow ministers and potential rivals into submission.

Alistair Darling, who claimed “the forces of hell” had been unleashed against him by No 10 after a rather-too-candid interview about the recession, is only the latest in a long line of figures to feel the sharp end of this.

It is primarily because Mr Brown has such ‘form’ in this regard that Labour may find it harder than it thinks to bat these accusations away.

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Barnacle Bill said...

"Bullying" is often in the eye of the beholder, with one needing to see the whole picture to get a better understanding of this behaviour.
A ship's captain's behaviour could often be viewed as that of a bully, in fact I have often served under Masters who one might deem as "bullies".
One particular one comes to mind, I had phones/torches thrown at me, told to "feck off" when I had only greeted his arrival on the bridge.
Yet the very same Master backed me up in a dispute with head office to the extent of putting his job on the line as well as mine.
I'm afraid Broon's behaviour does not instill the same kind of respect I had for that Master/Bully.

Robert said...

What rubbish in the eye of the beholder, one thing to be in a temper, but to push people around or even throw your weight around is a disgrace.

The sad fact is Brown would have never become leader of the Labour party except by the back door, he had worked his way into a position where he worked with the New labour brigade to give him the leadership.

He is no superman or world Saviour he did not see the housing boom he did not see the down turn, he took tax from the poorest and gave to the rich, and now he is attacking the poorest the sick and the disabled over sixty fives with his DLA and AA reduction.

New labour and Thatcherism, what a f*cking world we live in