Patriotism, so Samuel Johnson tells us, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. His biographer James Boswell goes on to explain that what Johnson meant was not that patriots were scoundrels but that, in default of a better argument, a scoundrel would fall back on patriotism to make his case. This seems to me to be Mr Gordon Brown's approach.
It is not new. Mr Brown was ornamenting his speeches with references to Britishness, British values, and so forth long before last week's Labour conference. He may have been picking up an intellectual trend, as politicians sometimes do. Professor Linda Colley's book on the comparatively recent creation of Britain was much discussed; Professor Hugh Kearney's similar work was hardly talked about at all; such is fashion in books and reviews of books.
Or, again, Mr Brown may have been emphasising Britishness to mitigate the charge of being a Scot. There are too many of them, the jealous would murmur, in the upper reaches of government. By contrast, we Welsh get off lightly, with Aneurin Bevan and David Lloyd George long gone, and Neil Kinnock in the House of Lords.
There is probably a simpler explanation. Mr Brown may have talked about Britain and Britishness for a long time, as he certainly has done: there is no doubt about his consistency in this respect. But at the moment he is making a straight pitch for the Daily Mail vote. At times, indeed, he is in danger of overdoing things. "British jobs for British workers" would have been more likely to be heard at a British National Party rally than at the Labour conference.
In other ways, last week's occasion was more reminiscent of a Conservative Party conference of a type now extinct, conducted on old-fashioned lines. There was praise for ministers, who were invariably described as hard-working. Virtually half an afternoon was devoted to praise for the Armed Forces, with Mr Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, and other ministers in other debates pausing every so often for a polite round of applause.
In only one respect was there a deviation from the Tory conferences of old, when the party seemed to be perpetually in government, as it usually was. There was no grateful mention of "our friends in the press". And yet, unless I missed it, there should surely have been at least one friendly word from the Bournemouth platform. For the papers have done Mr Brown proud, not only last week but for three whole months. If he had described Northern Rock as a great British financial institution, there would have been no dissent from the hall, while the papers would have acclaimed his patriotism and sagacity.
Moreover, Mr Brown had added religion to his repertoire. He told us the Parable of the Talents. Unfortunately, he got it slightly wrong. To begin with, talents are not natural gifts to be brought out or exploited, but simply coins. Both William Tyndale's translation and the authorised version, Luke 19, specifically mention "pounds".
Then again, the "certain nobleman" of the story is hardly an admirable character. He gives his 10 servants a pound each, and instructs them to engage in trading. One of them makes 10 pounds; another, five. The third one does absolutely nothing except hang on to the money and return it to his master. For this he is not only abused by his boss but compelled to hand over the pound to the chap who already has 10. This is conduct worthy of Mr Damian Buffini, whom Mr Brown recently appointed to a Government committee.
There were even better known converts to the Labour cause on public display, even if they were not quite as rich. The Glasgow baggage-handler was given a standing ovation, though whether he was a fully paid-up member of the party I do not know. Mr Walter Wolfgang is certainly a party member and was shown in a prominent position.
But the belle of the ball, so to speak, the Zuleika Dobson of the people's party, was undoubtedly Mr Quentin Davies, the MP for Grantham. He looks and sounds like the Tory who could be found hesitating over the second glass of port in the Beefsteak, Brooks's or the Travellers. Here he was, being given a standing ovation rather than a glass of port after having been allowed a comparatively lengthy speech at the Labour conference.
There is even talk that arrangements are being made to pilot Mr Davies into a safe Labour haven before he has to recontest his present seat. No wonder Mr Dennis Skinner was wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. Others have laboured for as long on the doorstep as Mr Skinner has, but for much less reward. They may have found the spectacle less hilarious.
The fundamental message – and sending messages all over the place has been Mr Brown's preferred activity of the week – is, when you come down to it, no different from Mr Tony Blair's message. It is, as the old mission-hall hymn used to go: "Come and join us". It is Mr Blair's big tent erected all over again. Even so, there are touches of intolerance, just as there were in Mr Blair's day. Indeed, that big tent can still keep people out.
There were several references by the Prime Minister and his colleagues to people who "do not play by the rules". These remarks were of a vaguely threatening character. Nasty things, it was implied, would happen to them if they did not obey the rules. What precisely those rules were – that was left inchoate. Likewise, the people involved, the rule-breakers, remained undefined. They would, however, be discovered, denounced, arrested, punished, sent to prison. There were times when the conference resembled an illuminated leader-page of the Daily Mail.
No doubt this is precisely the effect which Mr Brown is setting out to achieve. It is clearly unsettling the Conservative Party. But soon, Mr Brown must make up his mind about the election, one way or the other.
Soon after he took office, a consultation paper suggested that the dissolution of Parliament should be for the House of Commons to decide. Little has been heard of this idea since it was first mooted. The dissolution would have to go through Parliament on a whipped vote and would in any case have originated in the Prime Minister and his or her advisers.
For the moment, we are stuck with Mr Brown and those largely anonymous advisers of his. In Victorian times, the date of the general election was decided by the Cabinet. The choice then was between dissolution and a resignation, where the government resigned to make way for another lot. In the 20th century, resignation fell out of fashion.
In the same century, the Prime Minister began the practice of claiming that he or she alone can advise the monarch to dissolve Parliament. This started with Lloyd George. In theory, Mr Brown's Cabinet could still advise or even instruct a Prime Minister about the election date. In practice, I doubt whether this meek bunch would even want to try.Reuse content