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June 12, 2007

A book which displays remarkably little courage: Courage: Eight Portraits - Gordon Brown

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Courage: Eight Portraits
by Gordon Brown
London: Bloomsbury, 2007
Hardback, 16.99

Gordon Brown is a highly capable politician but few would regard courage as his most obvious quality. He is notorious for vanishing when the Government is in trouble - pushing a junior minister like Dawn Primarolo to take the flack in a TV studio or at the despatch box.

Such is his persistence in this regard that for some he brings to mind T. S. Eliot's poem:

Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw -
For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!
One of the mistakes that Gordon Brown appears to be making is to copy his old rival Tony Blair in trying to come across as righteous and touchy feely without it backfiring as the public smell a fake - someone smug and sanctimonious who doesn't even mean it. Blair managed to get away with it for a long time as Brown looked on - biding his time with irritation that became the worst kept secret in politics. Now Brown appears to think his best bet is to copy the model.

Blair might have got away with a stunt like this but not Brown. What a lot of phoney guff the Chancellor of the Exchequer churns out in this book.

In the chapter on Martin Luther King, there is special admiration for King's approach to enemies.

Disarming his enemy. Getting rid of his enemy by getting rid of the enmity. Quoting Lincoln, King said, "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"
Come off it, Gordie. This might be all very well for Lincoln and King but there is precious little evidence that feudtastic Brown has any genuine regard for this approach. Some have suggested the references to forgiveness and overcoming bitterness represent some new approach by Brown. This hope would be more plausible if they were accompanied by the slightest hint of contrition in this respect.

Except, of course, Brown didn't write it. How on earth could he when busy being Chancellor of the Exchequer? Simon Jenkins claims Brown's researchers, Cathy Koester and Colin Currie, wrote 95 per cent of it and this doesn't seem to have been disputed.

But the researchers he got to write it for him were not particularly reliable. Derek Tonkin, former ambassador to Vietnam and Thailand, wrote to Brown after spotting nine errors in the extract printed in The Guardian about Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Who told him there were only 20 million people in Burma? You only have to pick up a copy of Whitaker's to see the population is 52 million, as indeed it says on the Foreign Office website.
Other errors include saying a military coup took place on 8th August 1988, when it actually occurred on 18th September.

However in the acknowledgements Brown stresses his own involvement with research and slips in some name dropping.

In researching this book I have had the privilege of talking some years ago to Professor Michael Aris, the late husband of Aung San Suu Kyi.
He adds:
Before writing my chapter on Robert Kennedy I was fortunate enough to visit Hyannisport and, there and in Washington and London, talk to Senator Edward Kennedy as well as other members of the Kennedy family.
Churchill doesn't make it but Brown covers himself by quoting Churchill several times. For all the embarrassment attached to the author of this cynical volume and the obvious aspect of many of the choices, I was pleased at the inclusion of the modern hero Todd Beamer. It was he who led the charge to the cockpit on United Airlines Flight 93 on 11th September 2001.
Their actions did not save the aircraft, or their lives and those of their fellow passengers, but their captors - who had not planned to crash into a field in Pennsylvania - had by the determined actions of Todd Beamer and his colleagues, been diverted from their far more lethal purpose: most probably an attack on the White House, or on the Capitol and the Congress of the United States of America.
There is also the worthy inclusion of Raoul Wallenberg who played a remarkable role in averting the massacre of Jews in Hungary from the Nazis. The book says cautiously:
Raoul Wallenberg disappeared for ever perhaps entombed in the Soviet Gulag as is most credibly believed.
It goes on to suggest the whole episode must have been an unfortunate misunderstanding:
It may have been his aristocratic air of confidence that accounted for his disappearance into the Soviet Gulag.
After all the idea that to the Communists who captured him that he was engaged in a:
humanitarian mission ... must have seemed wholly unbelievable. Far more likely it was he appeared to the Russians as a likely spy, or racketeer, or indeed a diplomat who had strayed beyond in order to line his own pockets in the murky opportunities created by war.
So here we have the speculation that if only the Communists had been aware of Wallenberg's "humanitarian mission" the great sense of decency prevailing during the Stalin era would have provided a happy ending. I think during this passage Brown (or whoever wrote it for him) should have understood a little less and condemned a little more. It should have acknowledged the overwhelming likelihood that Wallenberg was imprisoned by the Communists and that this was an evil thing to have happened. But, of course, there are plenty of people in the Labour Party who might accept that in the Soviet Union there was the odd mistake or misunderstanding but prefer to explain these things away rather than to accept that the whole regime was evil. For Brown to have done so in this book would have taken some courage.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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