'Bigot' gaffe jars with British presidential politics

Gordon Brown's 'bigot' gaffeBritain is entering new and uncharted political territory this month. For the last 60 years, its governments have either been Conservative or Labour and have almost always commanded a majority in the House of Commons. But almost every opinion poll for the last few months has predicted a hung parliament in which no administration could be formed without the support of the Liberal Democrats. Britain faces the prospect of its first coalition government since 1945.

The other transition that has been taking place in British politics has been much less dramatic — in fact so slow and gradual that many people don't seem to have noticed.

I was only 12 years old at the General Election of 1979, but I remember an American music teacher at my school saying that, if she had a vote, she would 'vote for Thatcher'. She was quickly corrected — she could vote Conservative, but not for Thatcher, because it wasn't a presidential election. Thirty years later however, it is noticeable that people now commonly talk about voting for Brown, or Cameron or Clegg, apparently unaware that only a few thousand people in the constituencies of Kircaldy & Cowdenbeath, Witney and Sheffield Hallam will actually be able to do that.

Presidential politics has well and truly taken over.

Some attribute this to the influence of the United States. Others to Tony Blair, not only for his 'presidential style' in which Labour's appeal to the people came to rely more and more on his personality, charisma and persuasiveness, but also for a presidential style of government in which debate in parliament, and even in his own cabinet, was circumvented in favour of 'sofa government' — the driving through of Blair's own initiatives, guided by 'focus groups' and a cabal of close advisers.

One of Gordon Brown's first acts when he became Prime Minister was to prohibit politically-appointed advisers from giving orders to civil servants — an aspect of Blair's presidentialism that had most irked the civil service. For a moment it looked like the drift towards presidential politics might be stemmed and some semblance of parliamentary democracy restored.

Such hope was short-lived. Revelations in the last couple of years about MPs' expenses, in which the taxpayer turned out to have footed the bill for, among other things, the purchase of a floating duck house by one MP and the cleaning of another's moat, have grievously undermined Britain's trust in its parliament.

The party leaders, aware of the damage that any hint of impropriety could do them, have strained to present themselves as beyond reproach, and competed with each other to take the hardest line with their own MPs — with some success, and a resulting media perception of them as white knights, compared to their gravy-train-riding, expenses-fiddling foot-soldiers whose main aim is to get their snouts in the trough and claim the maximum allowance for their taxpayer-funded second home.

Not a good time, in other words, to try and promote the idea of parliamentary democracy.

The final nail in the coffin came during the run-up to this election, when it was announced that a series of debates would be staged between the leaders of the three main parties, live on television. We were told that what the United States had been doing for 50 years, we were finally catching up with now.

The awful thing is, that might be true. Since the first of these debates took place, the attention of the political pundits — and conversation in pubs and at bus stops — has been entirely focused on how each of the leaders did in the last debate and what he has to do to improve in the next one. Did he smile enough? Did he sound sincere? Did he land any blows on his opponent?

The impression is driven home that we are choosing one of these three men to be the nation's leader. Any suggestion that we might be choosing local representatives to speak for us in parliament — the foundation of the British political system — seems to have been completely lost. And, though questions of policy do come up in the debates, they scarcely earn a mention in the post-debate analysis.

Yet these TV clashes seem to be changing minds, and have given a huge boost to what we used to call the 'third party', the Liberal Democrats, because of the widely-acclaimed performance of their young leader, Nick Clegg.

Of course, he has the easiest job. Brown has a record of government to defend, and David Cameron has to offer alternative policies that will stand up to scrutiny whilst making himself look like a 'statesman', a plausible alternative Prime Minister. But in a country where disenchantment with 'the system' seems to be at an all-time high, all Clegg, the 'outsider', has to do is to look cool and say 'let's do things differently' and he's winning hearts, minds and votes up and down the country.

It hardly needs pointing out that all this focus on leaders and their personalities and styles is not good news for Brown. Disaster was deemed to have struck this week when an inadvertent remark he made in a car when he didn't realise he was still miked was whipped up by mischief-making reporters into a huge story. In terms of relations with the media and ease in front of a camera, Brown is to Tony Blair what Pope Benedict is to John Paul II — shy, serious, a little too 'heavy' for our sound-bite culture, and just not the TV personality his predecessor was..

Brown's opening speech in the second debate included the line, 'if it is all about style and PR, count me out'. Sadly, it looks like that is exactly what's happening.

Peter ScallyPeter Scally SJ is founder of Eureka Street's sister publication in the UK, Thinking Faith

Topic tags: Peter Scally, Gordon Brown, bigot, uk election



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Existing comments

... but the lady who spoke to Mr Brown really IS a bigot. She needs to know this.

Mr Brown, however, could have at least explained this openly, to her face.

David Arthur | 30 April 2010  

Brown's vicious comment about the lady, whose questions concerning tax, pensions and immigration were perfectly reasonable, tells us what politicians REALLY think about the people.

Sylvester | 30 April 2010  

Australians wouldn't have been too surprised by the Brown "gaffe"...at least not those who would recall Bob Hawke's putdown of a shopping centre pensioner years ago as 'a silly old bugger".

He went on, sadly, to be cut down not by the electorate but by his own party back-stabbers.

Brian Haill | 30 April 2010  

Yes, Arthur. That is exactly what I went on line to say - why should he apologize for naming it?

Pauline Small | 30 April 2010  

Another great background piece from ES. If 'Thinking Faith' has more like this one, and I'm sure it has, it will be good to see them mixed in with those of your very fine group of Australian commentators.

Joe Castley | 30 April 2010  

Why all the fuss over Brown's comment? It shows that the media has nothing to say and focuses on the word bigot. Big deal.

Scrutinize the policies of the major parties instead and hope that Mr Clegg will hold the balance of power. Maybe the Lib Dems will form government. Obviously wishful thinking. Sometimes you never know.

Terry Steve | 30 April 2010  

When the British working class is so neatly placed into the "bigot" basket, all because a working class woman may have had the gall to question immigration, it shows it is not the electorate driving the UK election but cultural snobbery. This is both sad and disturbing for parliamentary democracy in the UK.

Nathan Socci | 30 April 2010  

As Brian Hall says, we are reminded of Bob Hawke's "silly old bugger" episode. Those who were silly old buggers were outraged, those who were not thought it was funny, if not endearing, and Hawke's electoral capital was enhanced.

Mr Brown , a victim of his minders' spin, should own his words and be true to his nature. After all, he listened and spoke courteously to to the woman then referred to her as a "bigoted sort of woman" later, in private, so he thought.

The bigotted are outraged, the non-bigotted think he is right, therefore he should not lose any votes. Those minders should just whip off the mike next time so he can express his views in private, like the rest of us.

Anna | 01 May 2010  

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