Monday, October 15, 2007

Gordo the First

Gordon Brown, yesterday.

Political Analogies

Whenever British politics are especially fluid and capricious, pundits and thinkers seek out historical echoes, so as to gain some intellectual purchase.

Right now, the parallels for Gordon Brown's brief but troubled premiership seem obvious. The brooding Brown took over from his charismatic Labour colleague Tony Blair, so surely he is a Labour version of John Major, the stiff and unexciting Tory who assumed power after the iconic Margaret Thatcher.

Alternatively, some see a parallel with Labour PM James Callaghan, who succeeded the mercurial Howard Wilson. This comparison is apt, as Callaghan turned down the opportunity of a winnable election. Just like Gordon Brown this month.

But there is a much better comparison, deeper in British history. Consider the hapless James II, who took the English throne after his debonair brother, Charles II.

Here's one historian, talking of this succession:

“James II seems in every way a startling contrast to his brother Charles II. Where Charles was personable, witty, and popular, James was stiff, formal, and not well liked. Both brothers sought to increase their personal power, and both faced powerful opposition, but where Charles employed patience and subterfuge, James sought open confrontation. James frequently appeared arrogant or haughty.”

The analogy is closer the more you examine it. Just as tensions grew in the Blair camp, when it became obvious he had no obvious successor but Brown, so anxieties intensified in Charles’ court, when everyone realised the king would produce no legitimate heir.

Similarly, the reign of Charles II was notorious for its Blairite laxity and hedonism, epitomised by the "merry monarch" himself; Charles was also, like Blair, quite happy to lie to parliament.

James, by contrast, was a prickly and forbidding puritan, with a powerbase in Scotland. Just like Brown.

The moral of the story? James II lasted just three years, then lost the throne to a popular young newcomer.


DavidH said...

I'm not sure what Jack W would have made of this heretical notion that James VII was ever deprived of his throne. He merely spent his later years as a brooding presence without power and plotting a comeback. Pick any number of politicians to make an analogy with there.

The most cited twentieth century parallel for Brown is Anthony Eden, for reasons too frequently mentioned to go into again, but perhaps an even closer one is Neville Chamberlain. His presence in the Baldwin governments was at times overshadowed by more flamboyant ministers but he was recognised as an outstanding talent at Health and the Treasury, before he fell flat on his face at No10 (an event partly of his own making by his policies earlier in the 30s). As a person he was introverted and unsocial - but very self-confident - as is Brown, and followed on from a party leader who had an excellent reading of the public.

Chamberlain, like James, only lasted three years.

Ralph said...

Spookily Gordon Brown's actual first name is James.