Matthew Norman: There's something magnificent in the sufferings of Brown

Gordon is no bully. The primary victim of his unsuitedness to be PM is himelf

Wednesday 24 February 2010 01:00 GMT

How does he bear it? How can he haul that ursine frame out of bed to face yet another day's national debate over whether he's the nastiest bully since Tom Brown's schooldays or just a demented Caliban? The indignity knows no bounds, the humiliation no end. Yet on and on he ploughs, this wounded grizzly bear of a PM, bleeding and befuddled as the vultures continue to circle above and the jackals grin beside him at the Cabinet table.

There is something magnificent now about the suffering of Gordon Brown, although as usual when offered something fascinating in British politics we look the wrong way. Although the bullying charge suggests a smartypants Saatchi & Saatchi election slogan – "Not Flashman... Just Gordon" – it is the reddest of herrings. For a decade, anyone with a taste for New Labour psychodrama has heard and believed countless stories of paranoid outbursts, brutal maltreatment of subordinates, and toddler tantrums when his sense of entitlement or primacy is challenged.

Andrew Rawnsley is an outstanding journalist of flawless integrity, and you'd have to be potty or parti pris to doubt his portrait in anything other the finest detail. But entertaining though they are, the screaming and shouting, effing and blinding, lapel-grabbing and car seat-punching are not the story here. The story is that of a human being enduring a level of psychic pain that would, were it physical, long ago have obliged his friends to take up the Ray Gosling Memorial Pillow.

The two and a half years since he cluck cluck clucked out of an election have seen the theatrical metaphor pendulum swing violently between Shakespearean tragedy and low farce. It now rests, with what looks like finality, upon the former.

Admittedly, there's still a steaming dollop of hilarity for those who like their political ironies delivered by sledge hammer. On Monday's Newsnight, John Prescott's face after being imperiously swatted for hypocrisy by Mr Rawnsley was something to behold. It required an idiot of the very first water to dismiss a bullying charge by reacting with snarling fury to being challenged himself, and here Mr Prescott was cast to type. You might as well have adduced Harold Shipman as star medical witness for Dr Crippen's defence.

But even the Aphasic Mouth of the Humber must cede the comedic honours to Lord Mandelson, whose mutation into Westminster's Oscar Wilde gathers pace. With "I like to think I took my punishment like a man", he'd already offered a wry and witty pastiche of the stiff upper lip schoolboy returning to the dorm, buttocks aflame, after an encounter with fagmaster Brown's swishing cane.

Then he trumped himself at a news conference, when he fixed an impertinent hack with a faux-menacing stare (don't for a moment think he isn't in on the joke; he's a fine self-parodist) and declared: "Nobody bullies, and nobody tolerates any amount of bullying in this Government. Period. Zero. That's it. OK?"

OK? Not 'alf! So resplendently OK, indeed, that I refuse to betray any confidential character readings the First Secretary, etc, may have seen fit to share down the years. So suffice it to state the bleeding obvious that his lordship's private thoughts have, at times, been starkly at odds with his public utterances of today; and that political history has never known a show of chutzpah like his regal dismissal of the notion that Gordon is an aggressive maniac, and never will again.

But reference to the seething factional hatreds of yore is as old hat as these accounts of Gordon's volcanic petulance. What's illuminatingly new about the Rawnsley book is the portrayal of a man whose boorish disdain towards others is rooted in his appreciation not of their failings but of his.

Sight metaphors are hard to avoid with Gordon, possibly because the adolescent weeks he spent lying in the pitch dark unsure whether his surviving eye would be saved seem so central to his definingly tragic trait. An experience that would have crushed or diminished most appears to have instilled in him the unquenchable ambition that expresses itself now in his bewildering power to keep buggering on.

From the Cyclopes to the Daleks, myth has painted the one-eyed as creatures of uncontrollable rage, but the particular horror Mr Rawnsley exposes is that the one thing Gordon can see in 20-20 crystal clarity is his own inadequacy.

"His inner demons gnawed at him with the fear that perhaps he was not up to being prime minister," writes Rawnsley. "It's my fault, it's all my fault,' he self-flagellated in front of intimates. He was consumed with remorse and guilt for the mistakes he made over the phantom election."

Perhaps it's the fresh memory of Mr Tony Blair's Chilcotian swansong, but there's something touching about this vista. Self-loathing and self-doubt aren't always appealing qualities, but next to self-adoration and self-certainty they acquire some comparative charm.

Had Gordon been born a Catholic, he might have been attracted to Opus Dei and the cilice. He wasn't, of course. He was born into the presbyterian Church of Scotland in which his father was a minister, and nothing betrays his sense of guilt like references to his dad. As we know from his authorship of a book about political courage, he is drawn to lauding qualities he knows he lacks himself like Odysseus to the sirens.

In June last year, preposterously denying having contemplated sacking Alistair Darling, he alluded to his father teaching him "always to be honest". On Sunday, denying the charge of assault that had not been made, he told Channel 4: "Look, I was brought up... my father, I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone and I always think when you're... the heat of the moment, you say things sometimes. Of course you do get angry, mostly with yourself."

And there, surely, are the truths of it – the small, self-evident truth that it's the fury he feels towards himself that is released and redirected at any passing Garden Girl; and the greater truth that the cruelest of his curses is to judge himself by the idealised goodness of a father who would be mortified by his son's studiedly unpresbyterian emotional incontinence. For an Olympic standard control freak to be unable to control events is hideous enough. But the inability to control himself, and the filial betrayal that represents, must be intolerable.

So if your bespoke definition of bullying involves relishing the misery caused, a la Thatcher and Howe, Gordon is no bully. For all his shimmering flaws, there is no malice in him. The primary victim (apart possibly from the country) of his transcendent unsuitedness to be prime minister is Gordon Brown.

Famously, Jonathan Powell told Boris Johnson that Brown would never become PM, and that this would be a Shakespearean tragedy. He was wrong on both counts. It would have been a personal tragedy had Gordon never made it to Number 10, and it will be one when he leaves to face those 20 unfilled waking hours each day. God have mercy on him, and Sarah, then.

But the Shakespearean tragedy lies in the fact that he did become prime minister and that a man driven by ambition to sell his spiritual birthright for a post he could only mess up spent almost his entire time in office raging, raging – at others, but really at himself – against the dying of the light.

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