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Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson: I can forgive Gordon Brown anything but Sir Alan Sugar's appointment

All along, in the dismal gloaming, he fantasised about prancing airily like Tony

By the time you read this, Halfwit might well be gone. I am not referring to Gordon Brown. It's not our style to talk about politicians in that fashion, not even when they're Hazel Blears. The Halfwit I'm referring to is a contestant on this year's Big Brother, which I am determinedly not watching. He was given the choice of changing his name to Halfwit or leaving the show. A female contestant was offered a similar deal – consent to being called Dogface or pack your bags. Not much of a dilemma for either of them. There is no humiliation you do not suffer in order to stay on in the House.

Ditto, you might say, Gordon Brown. To have been called Halfwit or Dogface this past week would probably have been considered relief. That was some week, not only in the political life of Gordon Brown, but in the history of national decorum. Day after day of unremitting contumely and contempt. And the newspapers did not just observe it, they contributed with contumely of their own. The more the edifice seemed about to crumble, the harder we pushed, until our pushing became a constituent element of the drama, virtually a political act in itself.

Scorn is a corrosive. And no people heap it with more relish and invention than the English. We might not have a Ben Jonson around now, or a Rowlandson, but we haven't forgotten how to be savagely and destructively rude. Or, it would seem, how to weather all detraction. Brown tottered, lowered his head, aged a hundred years, swallowed more than pride – swallowed, it seemed, his immortal soul – but somehow remained standing. There is, it would appear, no humiliation some men are not prepared to suffer in order to stay on.

It is easy to say that people get what they deserve. Enter politics and you lay yourself on the line. Go on Big Brother and you sign up for ignominy. But are we obliged to be sadists just because the world is full of masochists? It might be childish sadism in the case of Big Brother, but it wasn't a child who came up with the idea of getting Freddie and Sophie to change their names to Halfwit and Dogface, it was an adult. Did the production team laugh their socks off when the ruse was first presented? Was there no dissenting voice? "But that's fatuous and ugly," did no one protest? Or do "fatuous" and "ugly" not figure in the reality TV vocabulary?

It's a commonplace of the caring professions that people who are abused do not easily forget it, that unkind words, like unkind actions, stay in the heart. A slight that might appear mild to a parent or a teacher can do damage that lasts a lifetime. So why should it not be with societies as it is with families? Routine brutality of expression, whether it's swearing without wit, or the habituation of hurtful and graceless insult, wears away the spirit. Year by year, television makes us a little grosser, a little more demeaned in our view of ourselves, a little more careless as to the demeaning of others.

Enter, into our political life, Alan Sugar. I am, I know, unusual – though not, I am sure, alone – in finding The Apprentice unwatchable. Not unwatchable in the Big Brother way, which means half-noticing it through closed fingers, catching glimpses of it on the hoof, while on the phone to a call centre in Mumbai, or while hoovering the memory of words like Halfwit and Dogface out of the carpet, I mean unwatchable in that having once watched it I will no longer have it on, cannot have it on because every word uttered on it is an offence to sense, an offence to humanity, and an offence to God. I know that the inane boastfulness of the supplicants – or whatever they're called – is scripted and artificial, likewise the no less inane boastfulness and gross manners of 'Sir Alan', as we are made to call him in a parody of civility, but why is pretend loathsomeness any better than the real thing?

Just when I was coming round to Gordon Brown last week, saddened by the sight of his cheeks imploding (call no man an island: that could have been any one of us gasping for air), appalled by the verbal battering he was taking, and at the last impressed by the capacity for cunning and machination that got him through (politics it's called, and is he not a politician?) – just when he had appeared to right the ship of office, no matter for how short a voyage to Nowhere-in-Particular, he goes and grasps at the straw of Alan Sugar.

See how hard it is, reader, to stand up for anyone in a world turned ugly. How can one defend Gordon Brown against brutality when he seeks the professional company and solace of someone who has made brutality his catchword? Does Brown really see Sir Sugar as the new spirit of enterprise that will save Labour's skin until a general election? Has the buffeting taken its toll on his sanity?

No doubt it was Sugar's being, as they say, good on TV that swung it. Gordon Brown is not good on television. I am not sure why we hold that against him. Tony Blair was very good on television and we couldn't wait to see the back of him. We don't always like those we watch. But such considerations apart, Gordon Brown would do well to remember that the economy is his strong suit and that economics, in the words of Thomas Carlyle, is the "dismal science".

In the years of his Chancellorship, which some see as laying the foundations for our troubles, and some decidedly do not, Gordon Brown was wonderfully, triumphantly dismal. The more Tony pranced in his irresponsibly gay self-satisfaction, the more pleased we were to have dismal Gordon doing the books. He was that kind of Chancellor; he really did look as though he'd been up all night, writing numbers in columns.

And all along, in the dismal gloaming, he fantasised about prancing airily like Tony. How little men know themselves! He should, after this week of tribulations, go back to the dismal he does best. I can't say it will win him the next election, but it might do wonders for the temper of the nation. A sedately dismal Prime Minister, bad on television, abstemious in his spending, puritannical in outlook, prudent in language, temperate in appetite (Sugar-free would be a start) – I cannot think of anything we need more, in the age of Halfwit, Dogface and The Apprentice, than that.