The chief whip has set a good example by apologising for his rudeness to the coppers guarding Number 10 Downing Street. But should his action not be noted by the hermit of Kirkudbright, one Gordon Brown? For over a decade he was, after all, systematically rude to virtually everyone with whom he came in contact in the course of his eleven years at the Treasury and at Number 10 Downing Street.
Brown’s behaviour seems to have been due to several factors. First, I feel, was the appalling strain he was always under after the loss of one eye and the certainty that the sight of the other would deteriorate with time. But there was another, more social, factor, for his political experience was confined to Scotland, he knew nothing of England, a country for him composed of a series of ‘overfly counties’ as the Americans might put it. Unfortunately the Scottish Labour party is like no other in British history, it was – and in some senses still is - tribal, its habits brutal, resembling rather the Scotland of the days of Macbeth than a normal political party – the only difference being a misogyny so profound that Lady Macbeth would have been dismissed as just another ‘wee lassie’.
This tribalism invariably resulted in an atmosphere of ‘them and us’ in which it was absurd even to discuss matters with any member of the opposing tribe. This assumption was enlarged and deepened by Brown’s hatred of Blair, the man who had, as he felt, had usurped the British throne. The result was a feud remarkable even in the history of the Labour Party, an organism historically partial to bouts of Civil War – though, to be fair, these were generally based on genuine political differences.
Mitchell’s outburst has had no real consequences but the same cannot be said of Brown’s systemic rudeness. First, and most obviously, it crippled the Labour government. But even more fundamental, Brown’s refusal to listen, not only to his tribal enemies, but to any ‘neutral’ voices, including genuine experts, led to appalling mistakes, ranging from the sale of much of the country’s gold at the lowest price for a generation, to a disastrous attempt to privatise London’s Tube network. These experts were, in Brownian words TBE, Tainted By Experience, ie they knew what they were talking about and were thus legitimate subjects of Brown’s scorn.
But the most serious legacy of Brown’s behaviour was the destruction of the Treasury tradition of open debate. Roy Jenkins noted that this was free, that youngsters were able to argue their case against their superiors, and although the result might not be correct it was at least guaranteed to be the product of serious debate among a group of highly intelligent people. Brown’s hatred of the Treasury mandarins, by definition members of an alien tribe, has destroyed this tradition with lamentable consequences for the conduct of economic policy in this country.
Oh and by the way it would be particularly nice if Brown made his apology in the House of Commons, for although he is paid a very decent salary and allowances for membership, he doesn’t seem to have shown his face there much recently, except to be photographed with Aung San Suu Kyi.