It's amazing what robots can do these days. This week a humanoid named Asimo conducted – or appeared to be conducting – the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It was rather sweet, actually: four foot three inches tall, shiny white (apart from a red Honda logo on its back) – and capable of a courteous bow at the beginning and end of the performance. The audience, and the orchestra itself, seemed to love it.
There are limits to the range and appeal of robotics, however – and a convincing demonstration of this was provided yesterday by the Prime Minister. In a number of broadcast interviews – part of some relaunch, I believe – Gordon Brown seemed determined to reinforce the impression that he is not as other humans, but some sort of automaton.
When he wasn't spewing out statistics with machine-gun monotony we got the endless repetition of the Brownian mantra: "I am making the right long-term and difficult decisions for the future of the country... I am making the right long-term and difficult decisions for the future of the country... I am making the right long-term and difficult decisions for the future of the country..." – except that instead of calming people down, as a mantra is meant to do, it will have had voters up and down the country screaming at their radio, imploring the BBC to end the interview and move on to something more interesting, such as – well, absolutely anything else, even Thought for the Day with Dr Indarjit Singh.
"I can save the economy again" was the BBC's headline on its interviews with the Prime Minister – a reasonable attempt to summarise the other Brown soundbite on continuous loop: "I have taken the British economy through difficult times. I have done it before and I will do it again."
The Prime Minister clearly believes (perhaps with some reason) that if he says this often enough, very few will remember that in 1997 he inherited an inflation rate of 2.5 per cent from the Tories and that the ensuing 10 years witnessed the most benign global economic conditions of modern times.
It's certainly true that the current toxic combination of sharply rising food and oil prices along with a depressed property market is enough to test the political mettle of even the strongest government. However, there is very little – despite what Gordon Brown seemed at times to suggest yesterday – that a prime minister can do about such ineluctable global market forces. It's at such times, therefore, that a kind of emotional bonding with the suffering public becomes a leader's essential attribute. Yet Gordon Brown – though I don't doubt his concern for a second – seems absolutely unable to do this.
You could argue that his fastidious refusal to indulge in a Blairesque "I feel your pain" has a kind of rough-hewn son-of-the-manse integrity about it. Yet it's still a very dangerous weakness for a politician in an age of emotional openness and mass empathy. In a way, it's extraordinary that a man could have risen to the rank of prime minister without the slightest trace of this particular talent. The point, however, is that Gordon Brown was not elected Prime Minister by the public – or even, in one sense, by the Labour party.
His political triumphs have been gained through entirely other means, most notably during his years at the Treasury. The weapons used were brute bureaucratic force, the bullying of officials, brilliantly conceived behind-the-scenes manoeuvring – and, when it came to the ousting of Tony Blair, the ability to execute a coup while appearing to be hundreds of miles away from the scene of the accident.
All these are political arts – but they are the sort of subterranean skills that are not just invisible to the public; they are nothing whatever to do with the creation of popular sympathy and support. Of course Tony Blair was also capable of ruthless political in-fighting – it would be fatuous to suggest that he lacked the will or capacity to strangle his enemies in the dark.
Yet what Tony Blair also had – to an almost preternatural degree – was the ability to persuade people, by sheer charm as much as any ex-barrister's articulacy, that they should see things his way, even if at first they were inclined to believe the opposite. Sometimes – as in the war on Iraq – those so persuaded afterwards felt furious for having been swayed; but the fact is, they were swayed.
The terrible paradox at the heart of this – terrible for the current Prime Minister, to be exact – is that Gordon Brown is in almost every way a much more emotional man than his predecessor. Like many great actors, Tony Blair's public emoting and apparent vulnerability disguised a core of icy detachment, which spared no one, not even his closest friends and associates. Ask Peter Mandelson.
Gordon Brown is exactly the opposite. While the outside world sees a man of robotic self-discipline and imperviousness to normal human weakness, the real man is a ferment of emotion – almost out of control, in fact. Frank Field's extraordinary remark a few days ago about Gordon Brown's "indescribable tempers" was a piercingly honest description of exactly this aspect of the Prime Minister's personality. On a more mundane level – and visible to all – Gordon Brown's chewed fingernails are an indicator of this inner turbulence and anxiety.
There is a positive and much more attractive side to this emotionality: I recall one Labour minister describing how he saw Gordon Brown in tears as they both returned from a visit to a home for severely disabled children – this was before the Prime Minister became the father of a boy with a life-threatening condition. The minister bemoaned the fact that Gordon Brown would never let the public see this side of his personality.
This is the man that the Labour Party's image-makers want the voters to understand, as they desperately search for a way to present the Prime Minister as a three-dimensional character, rather than the desiccated calculating machine presented to the public in those narcoleptic Today programme interviews. Yet Gordon Brown, like Coriolanus, will never display his wounds in the marketplace.
Hazel Blears – the polar opposite of Brown's Caledonian gloom – has her own, characteristic, idea to make the Prime Minister seem human: she has suggested in a Cabinet meeting – I can hardly believe it, but it's true – that he becomes the star of a new reality television show provisionally entitled "Junior PM". The programme, we are informed, would "aim for an Apprentice meets Strictly Come Dancing audience".
Even if the BBC were to abandon all pretence of political impartiality and offer Gordon Brown the starring role in a programme of this sort, I hope that the Prime Minister would recoil in his best puritanical manner from such a grotesque stunt. If that is the only alternative to Gordon Brown as robot, then I'll take the robot: it may be maddening, but unlike reality television, at least it's real.Reuse content