Sarah Sands: To depart with dignity is all you can want in life - or death

Nothing in Gordon Brown's time at No 10 became him like the leaving of it
Click to follow

When it came to the end, Gordon Brown slipped the leash of office like a spirit leaving a diseased old body. The final week of the election campaign had been a circus of horror; a cackling Murdoch press, a mood of defeat seeping through the Labour Party, polls as cruel as mirrors. The most potent election image was of Brown slumped in a radio station, confronted by an ugly private self.

Then closeted in Downing Street, like a tyrant in a bunker, dog tired, unable to sleep, fearful of advice, nerve pricked by the media howl to go in the name of God.

Suddenly the man who had fought and cursed and threatened for more than 10 years to become Prime Minister could not shed the title fast enough. When Nick Clegg phoned him on Tuesday evening to say that he needed more time to reconcile his party to a Lib-Con coalition, Brown replied: "Nick, Nick. I can't hold on any longer. I've got to go to the palace."

And as he threw away the dearest thing he owned as 'twere a careless trifle, Gordon Brown became himself again. Clever, impressive, wry, immensely moving.

He was ridiculous in office and magnificently dignified in defeat. As the light faded on Tuesday, he was calm and clear. It would have been too painful a spectacle if he had been alone, but he was not. The woman who saved him was by his side and he paid tribute to her and to their sons, John and Fraser. The dramatic appearance of the boys was a manifestation of the power of redemptive love.

Brown has been unable to find the right note for the past year, yet his speech on Tuesday was as fluent and piercing as Mozart. His quiet, humorous line about learning of human frailties, "including my own", was perfectly delivered. His heartfelt tribute to the troops erased the misspelling and clumsy opportunism of the past. Most remarkable of all, he smiled naturally and in the right places. At last, he understood why he was smiling.

As Cicero said: "Where is there dignity, unless there is honesty?" Gordon Brown had stopped pretending that he was what he was not. He had stopped blaming others – Tony Blair, Sue, anyone – for the world not going to plan. He had become resigned, although not defeated. Brown called on the Labour Party to fight on, but he accepted that he was not the man to lead them into battle.

In acceptance lies dignity. Everyone becomes more human in loss – look how lovable Hillary Clinton suddenly was when she finally relinquished hope of the presidency. Her concession speech was a gracious appeal to her followers to support Barack Obama, but it contained one of the great rousing feminist passages, up there with the civil rights refrain "We Shall Overcome".

"Although we weren't able to shatter this highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it and the light is shining through." It is all the more moving in hindsight as we see today the cracks being filled and the hard-wearing ceiling double glazed.

The dignity lies in the recognition that convictions and values are not uniquely held by you and may be safe in the hands of others.

The Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who wrote Oration on the Dignity of Man, equated dignity with human rational achievement, which elevated man to the status of angels.

But to a modern sensibility, there is dignity in the recognition of personal fallibility. Gordon Brown has struck a rich seam in mining the humour of self-knowledge. His visit to Adam Smith College in Fife later in the week was wreathed in jokes about his loss of title and his poor social skills. The students loved him all the more for it. His reputation is being repaired by the second.

It is a lesson we can all learn. As she looks back, I wonder if the Conservative candidate Joanne Cash now feels she might have handled her failure to win Westminster North a little more graciously than with a bitter tirade against the media: "So for the record, press, you are on notice. No more lies."

Dignity is primarily equated with endurance. Only now, in the luxury of relative tolerance, do we appreciate the nobility of those who predated civil rights.

President Obama has a cool, contained manner, so it was striking to see him cry at the funeral last month of the civil rights leader Dr Dorothy Height. He praised her for her hats and humour but above all for her "regal, quiet, dogged, dignified persistence". Dr Height drew comparisons with the unshowy courage of Rosa Parks, a woman without power or influence, who nevertheless, and knowing the consequences, declined to give up her seat on a public bus for a white man. Rosa Parks's simple philosophy was "Do what is right".

When Gordon Brown talks of the fight for social justice, we have to remember that we in the UK are only two centuries from slavery. It is less than a century ago that women were permitted to vote. Homosexuality has been legal in the UK for less than 50 years. Asylum-seekers are still detained without hope and unable to seek work.

We may all applaud the dignity of humanity in theory. Germany lists it as a right above the right to life, in its constitution. But it cannot be taken for granted.

Listening to a tribute to Lena Horne on Radio 4 on Friday, I was startled to hear that she had to sleep on the bus after concerts, despite her fame, because hotels would not admit her. Or that she, the most beautiful and seductive of women, was spat on in public. Lena Horne was angry about injustice and fought hard for the civil rights movement, but she shrugged off personal hurt. Dignity requires the deepest moral courage; it demands lack of bitterness.

The person who remains the gold standard for dignity is Nelson Mandela. Even his jailers revered him. He could have raged against his lost years but he emerged from prison nobler than when he went in. Like Dorothy Height, his character was stronger than his circumstances; like her, his rebuke lay in his personal example and his "regal, quiet, dogged, dignified persistence".

You can be dignified if you are wealthy and powerful, but dignity shines most in adversity. The celebrity ambassadors who visit Africa often talk of the serenity and dignity of those who have nothing. Alexander McCall Smith's popularity as a novelist lies in elevating simple or meek lives. Kindness and cheerfulness matter more to him than titles. Dignity lies in quiet virtue.

Dignity is based on free will, which is what civil rights mean. It is hard to have dignity without a degree of independence. It is interesting that Jack Straw blamed Labour's defeat on the alienation of the traditional working class. It was cruel to ply them with benefits, while giving away their jobs to immigrants. Gordon Brown, of all people, turned his back on the dignity of labour.

The area of human dignity that exercises the West now is death. We are finally demanding the right to die at a time of our choosing. The organisation which is fighting for this right calls itself Dignitas.

Yet the opponents of euthanasia also claim that they are championing human dignity. If you have religious faith, you will believe that dignity is a gift from God. The Catholic catechism cites: "The dignity of the human person is rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God."

Herein lies the dignity of those too ill or disabled to exercise free choices. Who could deny the dignity of David Cameron's late son Ivan, whose physical suffering evoked such love and sympathy among those who cared for him?

There is a grace and dignity inherent in leaders such as Barack Obama or Aung San Suu Kyi. Others have to stage manage it a bit. One could nitpick over Gordon Brown's resignation speech. For instance, his praise of the armed forces "now that the political season is over". Which politician in power would lay into our fighting soldiers? And his assertion that the title and prestige of being Prime Minister meant nothing to him does not entirely accord with that account of him in Andrew Rawnsley's book.

But Brown had learnt, as Tony Blair put it, that "sometimes the only way to conquer the pull of power is to set it down".

Brown showed great dignity in his departure, but I think someone else showed more. Alistair Darling left No 11, just before Brown, without comment. He always behaved well and he did his best.

As Aristotle said: Dignity consists not in possessing honours but in the consciousness that we deserve them."