Alan Watkins: Tugging at the skirts of presidential victory

Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg have engaged in an unedifying bout of bandwagon jumping
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The Independent Online

As one of Labour's numerous former ministers, Ms Clare Short, is said to have remarked recently: Gordon has been given back his dignity. I did not hear the words myself, so I forbear from enclosing them in quotation marks, but I have little doubt that the gist of them is accurate. They were uttered before the result of the Glenrothes by-election.

Political correspondents tend to report these contests with both a broad and a full brush. The politicians themselves regard them in the same way. It is a question of win or lose, triumph or humiliation, with no room for anything except the simplest arithmetic, if that. Indeed, most of them are unable to work out ordinary percentages.

So it was that, in the spring and summer of 2007, Labour (first with Mr Tony Blair, then with Mr Gordon Brown) was judged to be doing well, whereas Mr David Cameron was a grievous disappointment. In fact – which, as usual, means in my opinion – the results of the period did not demonstrate anything of the kind. Labour would still have failed to win a fourth term even if Mr Brown had gone to the country in October 2007. That was what I thought at the time, and my opinion (I mean, of Mr Brown's future prospects) remains unchanged today.

Even so, it is worth noting that Labour's vote was actually up – not only the share of the vote from 52 per cent to 55 per cent, but (what is rare in by-elections) the actual vote, by over 500. The swing to the SNP was accounted for by the fall of the share of the vote for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. It was, for once, a triumph for Mr Brown. What a pity he does not have nationalists standing against him in England, where Tories and Lib Dems would do better.

The political year, like the school year, starts in the autumn. Winter is here. The leaves are falling, the clocks have gone back, the sad bugles are sounding: and Mr Brown is being given the benefit of every doubt that may be lying around.

The most unedifying aspect of the week has been the way in which our political leaders have tried to join Mr Barack Obama's motorcade. I partly exempt Mr Nick Clegg, but the other two leaders have been pretty shameless in wanting to occupy the leading cars in the victory procession.

It was more or less the same with the election of J F Kennedy as US president. Like Mr Obama, he had bought the presidency, even if with the Kennedy family's money rather than with that of his humbler supporters. He was the first Roman Catholic president, as Mr Obama was black. He was highly educated, even if he was less distinguished academically than Mr Obama. Kennedy was to proclaim the doctrine of military intervention throughout the world, as Mr George Bush and most US presidents after Kennedy were to do later on.

The external enemy was then communism, rather than terrorism. Kennedy led his country first into Laos and then, before the arrival of Lyndon Johnson, into Vietnam. Even when these adventures in foreign policy were under way, Kennedy was seen as a sign of hope for mankind. His predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, was seen as stodgy, uninspired, though it was he, not Kennedy, who (in his departing address in January 1961) first used the phrase "the military-industrial complex".

From Kennedy's inauguration to

his assassination two years later, Harold Macmillan made much of the Kennedy connection. Macmillan thought Kennedy had saved his premiership through the government's hiring of the Polaris submarine-based missile system. Kennedy complied reluctantly. He did not see why Britain had any need for an independent deterrent, as the US would do the protecting and, in any case, the system would effectively be under US control.

Harold Wilson, when he became Leader of the Opposition, cut a decidedly unglamorous figure by the side of Kennedy. But that did not deter him in the slightest from trying to draw the comparison with himself. Oddly enough, it came off. Wilson's "first 100 days" was a straight lift from a Kennedy speech earlier in the decade.

As prime minister, he used to mention "my good friend LBJ" in relation to Johnson. The president helped him out of several financial crises. What Wilson always, to his credit, refused to do was to send a British force to Vietnam, even a token presence. Johnson suggested the Band of the Black Watch. I think it was, though it might have been some other regiment of which the president had fleetingly heard.

Mr Blair, by contrast, was only too anxious to oblige. At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Mr Brown gave no indication that any changes of policy were being considered, whether in Afghanistan or in Iraq. By the end of the week, however, hints were being given from No 10 that our boys and girls would be home from those unhappy countries in large numbers in the new year. Whether Mr Brown's advisers chose to strike a more optimistic note, or Mr Obama's advisers had elected to say something to Mr Brown, who can say?

Of all the prime ministers since 1945, the only one who kept his distance was Edward Heath. He had only two meetings with Richard Nixon, but neither went out of his way to seek the other's company: that, I think, is the fairest way to describe the position at the time. Heath preferred to talk to Georges Pompidou of France, because he wanted to get into Europe.

Mr Cameron does not share these views, but he does not trumpet his transatlantic opinions either, as Mr William Hague does all the time. Mr Cameron's stock-in-trade is change, as it is, for the time being, for Mr Obama. It was so for Mr Blair, and for Wilson before him. Wilson lasted for three to four years, until devaluation. Mr Blair had longer: for three years in opposition and then up to the catastrophe of Iraq. Mr Cameron has yet to be elected, and has all the promise leading to a final disappointment in office still in store.

Mr Brown, on the other hand, seems to have been around for ever. In political terms, he really has been about the place for a long time. He has had a terrible year, but is now being praised to excess. The actions which he and Mr Alistair Darling have taken over the past few weeks have regularly contravened the political trade descriptions act.

The banks have not been nationalised. Some of them have acquired a state majority shareholding. But the nature of the control is left obscure. We do not know who the outside directors are, or what their powers will be. Other banks have preferred to remain independent. They would rather take their collecting boxes to the despots of the Levant, as Mr Brown himself has been doing. In all cases, the banks are reluctant to obey the instructions of the Government or even to comply with its wishes. Mr Brown himself has not changed. As the Victorian poet laureate is supposed to have written, on the temporary failure of the then Prince of Wales to recover from an illness: he is no better, he is much the same.