By David Beeson
If Bullygate teaches us anything, it’s that the election is going to be about personalities not politics. Also the common refrain of all elections, that it’s the dirtiest there’s ever been, is likely to be true this time as well.
Well, if that’s the way it’s going to be, there’s little point trying to pretend otherwise – we’d do better to confront the character question and deal with it.
So what about Gordon Brown’s character? I have to admit that, while I’ve never met him, he’s never struck me as someone I might want to spend the evening with over a few drinks (just for the record, he’s never given me any indication that he’d like to spend the evening with me either). A little too brooding, a little too prone to mood swings to be what I think of as congenial company.
But I really don’t feel that it’s the purpose of a general election to find us drinking buddies (can you imagine if it were? We might have some very strange pub sessions, being talked at endlessly about quantitative easing, about the superiority of public enquiries over select committees, or about the beauties of a house with a moat or clock tower). In my view, when it comes to character the only aim for a general election is to find someone who’ll rise to the challenge when things get tough.
Gordon Brown’s been through that test and come out with flying colours. When historians write the history of the present financial crisis they will obviously assign the greatest role to the super-economies, the United States and China, but they will I’m sure pay tribute to the catalyst role of Britain in October 2008, when Brown and Darling – yes, for all the tabloid rage, those two acted as a team and to powerful effect when we needed it – took the right action and campaigned around the world to make sure it was applied internationally.
Now it’s interesting that what Gordon Brown showed at that time was a quality that isn’t often credited to him: he acted decisively.
It’s true that he’s often been damaged by indecisiveness in the past. It might be argued that he was indecisive in not challenging John Smith for the Labour leadership. Perhaps he was indecisive in not building the campaign he needed to win the leadership instead of Tony Blair. He was undoubtedly indecisive, and has suffered badly for it, in taking too long to make up his mind to call or not to call an election in 2007. But all these moments had something in common: they concerned his career, the damage was done to him. When our interests were at stake, whether in the terrorist attacks or the floods of 2007, and far more importantly in the financial crash in 2008, he has shown himself swift to a decision and sure in his touch and we’ve all benefited from it.
Now let’s look at the other side. David Cameron seems to have far more charm than Gordon Brown. I have to be careful: whenever I’ve mentioned the Bullingdon Club in these posts in the past, I’ve been sharply criticised in comments, so I won’t mention it at all this time. Let’s just consider Cameron’s job before he became an MP: he was a Public Relations professional. Now as a marketing man myself, I know about PR people. They are generally charming, but that goes with the job. And if you want something more substantial than charm – say transparency, sincerity, an uncompromising commitment to face the truth however grim – let me assure you that PR is not where you’d go to look for it.
In fact, PR was where the concept of ‘spin’ got invented. If you’re sick of spin in government, it seems hard to explain why you’d want a PR man in Downing Street.
As for decisiveness, well you certainly can’t fault Cameron on his capacity to take decisions. He can decide this morning to launch a policy, decide this afternoon to abandon it, and decide tomorrow to re-launch it with modifications. Getting a decision out of him isn’t difficult. It’s getting him to come up with a good one and stick to it that’s proving impossible.
So if we’re not going to elect the next government on policy but on character, let’s keep the choice clearly in mind. On the one hand, we’d have a government led by someone who has been tested in conditions of historical importance and demonstrated a capacity for reaching the right decisions quickly and making sure they’re applied; on the other, someone for whom only presentation matters and who’ll align himself with any policy going if he thinks it’ll win votes.
I suppose it’s a pity when elections come down to personality not policy. But if the next one does – why does anyone think that won’t favour Labour?