Matthew Norman: Courage is knowing when to stand down

A small but poignant anniversary dribbled by unnoticed a fortnight ago. It was on 6 May 2007 that the world of letters greeted the official publication of Courage by Gordon Brown (Invertebrate Press, £0.49 from all good bargain basement bins; signed copies available at £0.07).

Seldom since Sanity by the Emperor Caligula, Clemency by Judge Jeffreys, Chastity by Tallulah Bankhead, Desert Orienteering by Sir Mark Thatcher, Cleanliness by Swampy, Charm by Sir Alan Sugar and Perfect Pitch by Victoria Beckham has any title been so clumpingly obvious an invitation to this sort of witless satire. In a display of self-unawareness to leave you gasping for air, a man personified by his spinelessness chose to dwell in print on the personal heroes who allegedly shaped his world view and political perspective.

"What is it that makes some men and women take difficult decisions and do the right thing against the odds when easier and far less dangerous alternatives are open to them?" enticed the manufacturer's product description. "Why is it that some have the courage to dare?"

In the quest to unravel the mystery, Gordon examined eight 20th-century paradigms of moral bravery. Among the octet's dead were Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the 40th anniversaries of whose assassinations fell last month and fall next month respectively. The living included Nelson Mandela, who won the war to liberate his people, and Aung San Suu Kyi, still waging hers against that unspeakable Burmese regime.

I feel ashamed to be spelling out what follows, in truth, because it's as close to a calculated insult to the reader's intelligence as even the smuggest of columnists would care to venture. But the core quality that binds these four titanic figures, costing two their lives and obliging the other two to endure mental and physical torture, is their absolute refusal to compromise cherished principles by appeasing potentially lethal opposing interests.

And so to today, when the author who celebrated them in that discounted tome will refuse to receive another fearless resister of malevolent power, the Dalai Lama, at Downing Street. The terror of upsetting the Chinese, to whose blue tracksuited thugs Gordon so graciously granted the freedom of London when the Olympic torch made its troubled way through town, saw to that.

"It is easy to be brave at a distance," observed Aesop. As so often, the canny old fablemeister was bang on the money, the specific distance being the 0.8 miles between No 10 and the Archbishop of Canterbury's home of Lambeth Palace. The meeting takes place there, so we're told, because the Dalai is "a spiritual leader rather than a political one". Pur. Leeze. As if Gordon would entertain an important visiting imam only at the Regent's Park mosque. Or the Pope, for goodness sake, at Westminster Cathedral.

It isn't every day you get the chance to cite George W Bush as a shining exemplar of moral leadership, but last autumn, having received him at the White House (albeit in the residence rather than the Oval Office), the imbecile's imbecile attended the presentation to the Dalai of the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest civilian award the United States can confer, and the one Mr Tony Blair has yet to collect – at the Capitol.

America has slightly more to fear from antagonising Beijing than Britain, the US economy being desperately in hock to multi-trillion dollar Chinese loans. Yet while Beijing was predictably livid, and harrumphed away with the usual exaggerated outrage, there were no fiscal reprisals. You might have hoped that even Gordon would have taken courage from this. As if. Instead he hid behind the capacious skirts of realpolitik, or at least his interpretation of what it means (is appeasement really the smartest and most practical way to handle Beijing?), before sprinting for the no-man's-land of Lambeth.

I wish I could say that this expression of rank cowardice has the power to disgust, but it doesn't. There have been so many before, over such an extended period, that we are too inured to this Prime Minister's fatal flaw to react with more than a morose shrug. The first column I wrote for this newspaper, three and a half years ago, dwelt on his penchant for chickening out when offered the chance to finish off his predecessor, and the silly clucker has franked the form in sensational style since moving next door last June.

No one can doubt that choking himself out of calling an election he couldn't possibly have lost set him on the inevitable path towards one he cannot possibly win. The risible play-acting that led him to arrive those tantalising minutes too late to sign the Lisbon Treaty is echoed by his refusal to host the Dalai in Downing Street today, when at least their meeting will offer brief distraction from the cataclysmic defeat in Crewe and Nantwich last night.

God have mercy when we feel compelled to cite not only Dubya but his erstwhile colonic house guest as a rebuke to anyone, but Mr Blair didn't use the spurious convention that PMs don't visit by-elections as an excuse to avoid embarrassment. He went and campaigned regardless of the humiliation and probable subsequent damage from a bad result. Gordon, who'd have won some grudging respect for braving the electorate's disdain, stayed home.

In any updated edition of Courage, maybe he'll address the implications for the Civil Rights movement had Dr King confined himself to occasional appearances on local radio phone-ins? The depressing irony here is that there was a time when many of us admired him for his bravery. The story of how the adolescent Gordon lay uncomplainingly in the pitch darkness for months on end while doctors fought to save his surviving eye – an agony almost beyond comprehension for so voracious a reader of books – always moves me. So to the nth degree does the memory of the dignity and fortitude with which he bore the loss of his baby daughter Jennifer.

Immensely laudable as his reaction to these disasters certainly is, the misreading of his nature they induced is plain. There is a world of difference between the stoical acceptance of personal tragedy – towering human quality though that is – and the ability to risk oblivion in the cause of sacred beliefs; between a passive form of valour and an active one.

He has the former in spades, and not an iota of the latter. If he had – assuming last night's result was as expected – only one course of action would remain to him. To lay down his political life for the party he claims to love wouldn't be yet more evidence of Gordon Brown fleeing the sound of gunfire. Resignation would be "the right thing to do when an easier alternative is open", and an act of simple, self-sacrificial and redemptive courage.