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December 11, 2006

Harry Phibbs asks, can we trust anything Gordon Brown says? Speeches, 1997-2006 - Gordon Brown

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Speeches, 1997-2006
by Gordon Brown
London: Bloomsbury, 2006
Hardback, 30

It is a coup for Gordon Brown to have persuaded J. K. Rowling to write a forward to one of his speeches in this collected version. Ms Rowling says:

Although (as you may have read somewhere) I no longer stand in personal need of financial help from the government, I watch every budget with a view to how it would have improved my life between 1993 and 1997, when I lived in fear of nappies running out before benefit day.
No doubt the scattering of celebrity endorsements will help see off complaints of dullness. But will Brown's volume sell as well as the Harry Potter novels? The earlier indications are that it will not.

Nor is the Potter author a reliable New Labour ally. Her novels champion steam trains and imperial measures - they have prompted children to pester their hard pressed parents to send them to boarding school.

Another celebrity endorsement comes from Alan Greenspan. It's not written specially for the book but is taken from a speech by Greenspan describing Brown as "a good friend" and an "exemplary" Chancellor. But I doubt Greenspan really means it. Greenspan had recommended to a Senate committee that all economic regulations should have fixed lifespans - Brown has piled them on. Greenspan used to pay homage to Ayn Rand in her sitting room in the 1950s and retains a fervent belief in the free market. Brown believes in tax and spend. I think Greenspan was just being polite.

There is something especially futile about wading through a collection of speeches by someone quite so brazenly dishonest. After all he denies putting up tax when the figures are there for all to see. In his budget speeches he just doesn't mention the tax increases and they have to be spotted in the turgid small print of the accompanying papers.

Brown constantly commends concern for the long term and disdains political considerations but he is the most impatiently ambitious and politically calculating member of the Government.

So the problem with these speeches is not simply that one might disagree with them, or spot inconsistencies or errors. It is that if Brown doesn't believe it himself why should we? If Brown, for example, finds it is politically expedient to pretend that Adam Smith was some kind of early socialist why should we even bother addressing the claim?

Brown's new found enthusiasm for Britishness is so transparently phoney and opportunistic, why should we even pretend he means it, just for the sake of the argument? If he did he would be genuinely concerned to preserve Britain as an independent nation rather than being a region of a European state. But he dodges the argument by pretending there is nothing to worry about. It is a rewriting of history, claims Brown, to suggest that:

Britain's traditional way of life and sovereignty are in danger of being submerged and that Britain's future lies outside Europe.
In the same sentence he manages also to present Europe as synonymous with the EU and the only alternative on offer to the threat of European integration (which doesn't exist anyway) as full withdrawal from the EU. This is turbocharged deceit.

Elsewhere Brown emphasises that he will make sure public spending provides good value for money. Brown says

The efficiency we seek in the private sector we demand in the public sector.
Yeah, right.

A year ago he gave a speech declaring the need for competitiveness and cutting edge wealth creation to meet the "challenge of globalisation". He announced:

We accept in full the recommendations of the Hampton and Arculus reports to cut red tape.
How lovely. But have we actually cut red tape in the last year? Or has more of it come spewing out of Whitehall's demented regulatory machine at a more alarming rate
than ever?

Often after reading a passage one is just left gasping at how Brown imagines he can get away with it. For instance he denounces Margaret Thatcher for praising "Victorian values" for purely being about individualism and self-help.
Brown says:

A moment's consideration tells us that even Victorian society was grounded in a more complex interplay between the claims of self-interest, duty and fairness.
But if Brown had spent a moment looking at what Thatcher had said on the matter he would know that she also commended the Victorians for their sense of duty and fairness.

For his benefit here is a quote from Thatcher's memoirs The Downing Street Years:

I had great regard for the Victorians for many reasons - not least their civic spirit to which the increase in voluntary and charitable societies and the great buildings and endowments of our cities pay eloquent tribute. I never felt uneasy about praising "Victorian values" or - the phrase I originally used - "Victorian virtues", not least because they were by no means just Victorian. But the Victorians also had a way of talking which summed up what we were now rediscovering - they distinguished between the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor. Both groups should be given help: but it must be help of very different kinds if public spending is not just going to reinforce the dependency culture.
I don't think Brown genuinely misunderstood. I think it was a wilful misrepresentation. But neither explanation rebounds to his credit.

Wilf Stevenson, who has edited this collection, intersperses the speeches with his own comments. The result is a confusing porridge with undated speeches and Stevenson's spin blurring into one another with only the celebrity endorsements offering relief.

Stevenson declares:

Public oratory is a strange art, since it depends on the theatricality of the staging, the presentation skills of the speaker, the expectation of the speaker and what actors call the "truth" of the performance.
In this case Stevenson's decision to put the word truth in quotation marks is well judged.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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