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May 22, 2008

The Benefit of Hindsight - Dominic Hilton explores his Max Moselyesque tendencies and gets to grips with Gordon Brown's collected speeches: Moving Britain Forward - Gordon Brown

Posted by Dominic Hilton

Moving Britain Forward: Selected Speeches 1997-2006
by Gordon Brown, Wilf Stevenson [Ed.]
London: Bloomsbury, 2006
Paperback, £9.99

It takes a certain Max Moselyesque penchant for torture to suggest reviewing a book of Gordon Brown speeches, but heck, at least I didn't plug it on the front flap, like Nelson Mandela did.

In his titivating seven and a half line introduction (five lines of which make it onto the cover), Mandela says he is:

pleased that Gordon Brown's speeches have been collected for publication.
Call me an idealist, but before embarking on this assignment I'd naively assumed that Nelson Mandela had better things to do in retirement than curl up with dust magnets like Moving Britain Forward. There's a chapter in here called "Delivering Local Public Services". Even I wanted to focus my energies on Zimbabwe after reading that.

As feared, Moving Britain Forward gathers into one painful volume ten of Gordon Brown's finest mumbles. You might ask why. My theory is that the Prime Minister's speaking voice is so muffled as to require his speeches to be read in print, after the fact. Pericles' Funeral Oration these ain't.

The real reason, of course, is to acclimatise us Brits to our new Prime Minister, to let us know that he is a serious thinker, with profound commitments to blah blah blah. You know the sort of thing. Each speech is introduced a minimum of twice, sometimes more. First by a celebrity - like Kofi Annan, J. K. Rowling and someone calling herself Al Gore - and then by the book's editor, Wilf Stevenson, who does a sterling job of both shamelessly Brownnosing and (working on the assumption that nobody but a desperate reviewer is ever actually going to read the darn speeches) telling you precisely what's in the chapter you are about to use as a sleep aid.

Before admitting how

in transforming what were live events into print, some of the colour and texture of the original have been lost,
Stevenson suggests that it is
hard not to be inspired by the passion of [Brown's] convictions, the coherence of his vision and the rigour of his arguments.
Hard, but possible.

It's no sweat agreeing with Brown's vague statements about eradicating poverty, renewing Britain's national self-confidence, and giving everyone an equal chance to succeed. Less persuasive are Brown's proposals for achieving these goals, a predictable number of which rely on his own helping hand, à la King Kong.

The keyword here is Moving (Brown just assumes we all want the Britain Forward bit). Moving implies action. Strong-armed action, mostly. And machinery. In this case, the machinery of state will do just fine. Close your eyes and picture an overall-clad Gordon Brown driving a forklift truck into your hallway and removing your assets. Now there's no need for you to read this book.

Nevertheless, you have to admire the sleight of hand. Skim-read Moving Britain Forward and you'd get completely the wrong idea (trust me on this). It's stuffed full of references to Adam Smith and Edmund Burke's "little platoons". Unfortunately, it takes a careful reading to expose the underlying ruse. Cue muggins.

Rule #1: All of Gordon Brown's speeches are targeted at a particular audience. And that audience consists only of people to the left of him. All he is really trying to do is convince the "unreconstructed wankers" that full-blown Marxism is not the whole answer, that sometimes free-ish markets are not so bad a thing, that abandoning the impossible-to-believe-it-ever-existed Clause IV was not selling out to capitalist scum, and that not absolutely everything should be run by the politburo.

If you had already clocked these things, Brown's speeches can prove somewhat baffling. It's always strange when a man points out the bleeding obvious then passes it off as revelatory and highly original.

In other words, Gordon Brown's orations elicit one overriding response: Duh!

Once you know that, all that's left are the excuses. And really, that's all Mr Brown has. Throughout the book I kept looking up from the pages, staring into space, and wondering why on earth this berk kept telling me all this. And then it dawned on me: everything to Gordon Brown is really just an excuse to justify his own intervention.

So, what we get are repeated reminders that Adam Smith talked not only of the famous "invisible hand" but also of the aforementioned "helping hand". A celebration of those "little platoons" quickly descends into a lusty proposal for "strengthening community organisations" and creating what amounts to some sort of oxymoronic state-sponsored voluntarism. A defence of Britain's tradition of individual liberty soon exposes itself as a pretext for advocating that eternally ugly beast positive liberty - freedom to, not freedom from. Even plans to teach "jobseekers" how to speak English reads like a cheap excuse to swell state power.

To my aching mind, the defining feature of the New Labour governments has been their endlessly repeated insistence that they, and only they, can clear up the messes that they have made. Every fucked-up initiative has been quickly followed by the launch of another fucked-up initiative to resolve the previous fuck-up. The intended result has been an incremental creep of the state. And the state is chockfull of creeps.

All of the above examples, by the way, are taken from the first chapter - the ominously titled "Britishness". And Brown's whole Britishness riff serves as a perfect case in point. More than anyone, Gordon Brown pushed for devolved power to Scotland and helped fan the flames of independence. Now he's reaping the not-so-generous rewards of his thoughtless actions, he blithely insists,

our Labour Party must stand resolutely as the party of the union.
Say what you like, but Britain's Prime Minister trousers a humungous pair of cojones.

Moving Britain Forward is littered with glimpses of New Labour balls. There is nothing that Gordon Brown will not readily co-opt and pass off as his own thinking. If you took Brown at his word, you'd think he invented flexible economies, mobile capital and competition between suppliers, and was the first to dare question the proper role of the state (after which he naturally draws the wrong conclusion). The Tories have spent the last fifteen years moaning that New Labour has stolen all its policies. This isn't true. New Labour has just nicked all the Tory rhetoric. The policies haven't changed. Gordon Brown is running out of people to tax.

What's more, Moving Britain Forward is an invaluable exposé of Third Way thinking (if that’s the right word). It turns out the Third Way is really just an excuse to double the number of busybodies who interfere in your life. In Third Way Britain both the bureaucrats and the nosey neighbours get to spy on you sunbathing nude in your garden.

My favourite sentence:

instead of - if I might put it this way - the man from Whitehall always knowing best, it is the woman from the WRVS or Sure Start or Community Service Volunteers or any of the NCVO organisations, that knows better.
Precious. Gordon Brown doesn't believe that you, the individual, know better about your own life than he does, but he's willing to concede the floor to anyone who can register themselves as an acronym.

Further comic gems:

• "all cultures value liberty, responsibility and fairness"

• "The UN's uniqueness lies in its representativeness, and thus accountability and legitimacy."

• "the decisions taken which, in the words of the Chancellor, make Britain fit for glabalisation" [sic.]

• "the unique nature and superiority of the NHS, both as a concept and in practical terms."

• "disabled people cruelly denied their chances under the Tories"

• "world class public services"

• "For too long too many in this country have believed college and university are not for them, a sad reflection of a poverty of aspiration. That day must end."

• "as Tony Blair's African partnership recognises, Africa is getting poorer."

• "a society based on need rather than greed."

It's possible that Brown and his cronies don't actually believe any of the guff they keep saying. For example, if it's true that we all feel "fairness" towards each other thanks to some uniquely British moral commitment to communitarian values, then how come Brown keeps needing to remind us of it, and then enforcing it by government edict? The Labourite doth protest too much, methinks.

To suggest that libertarianism is "narrow-minded" and that individualist liberty destroys communities is to completely ignore the case of the United States where, no thanks to government, both thrive in unison. It is Gordon Brown's Britain that has lost its sense of community, and for that we can thank the government.

Liberty is not enough for Gordon Brown, because liberty makes him feel unwanted, and gives him no reason to yank the levers of his forklift truck. That's why he delivers speeches entitled "Liberty, Responsibility and Fairness" in which he insists fairness is the most important value of the three, but fails to define what fairness is exactly, beyond yet another excuse for "enabling government" to promote "liberty as empowerment" through some form of "positive power".

There's only one mention of taxation across 272 pages of this stuff. And there's only one intelligent response to the idea of "government … discharging fresh responsibilities": eeeeewwwww!

And there's no escape, because it's not just Britain that Gordon wants to smother in his Brown discharge; it's the whole world. The Prime Minister praises Bob Geldof for heading a movement "all of us admire greatly" which is about

making things happen, forcing governments to deliver fairness.
Last month, addressing the UN in New York, Bolivian President Evo Morales said,
If we want to save our planet earth, we have a duty to put an end to the capitalist system.
Every bonehead wants to rule the world. Brown says he believes the whole planet is united in the challenge of eradicating poverty - including Zimbabwe, North Korea, and other such signatories of meaningless international declarations drawn up in Gordo's bathtub. Even when a policy has been shown to be a colossal cock-up, Brown says we must:
not allow setbacks to discourage us [but] strive even harder - our determination not diminished but intensified.
If the leeches didn't work last time, we'll just up the dosage of leeches.

The quack certainly has his fans. Al Gore says,

I am an unabashed and enthusiastic admirer of Gordon, and have been for a long time….
J. K. Rowling is chuffed that the British taxpayer funded her to write the Harry Potter books and make her richer than the Queen. After trumpeting Gordon's curriculum vitae, Wilf Stevenson says,
We are indeed lucky to have him in the right place at the right time to move us all from words to a commitment to deliver practical policies that can unite global opinion in a new and broad-based consensus that could bring about change: "so that we can make the world anew".

Seen through Brown eyes, even "a more open, global economy" necessitates an increase in government power - not to stop the forces of globalisation, but to "help markets operate better" by using things like "the physical planning system" to root out "chronic market failure". Brown thinks it is time to "renegotiate the relationship between markets and government", but really this is just a pitifully transparent excuse to justify any "relationship" at all. Brown still thinks governments can produce "efficient outcomes". And aren't "personalised public services" available in the loos at Clapham Common?

Then there's the Prime Minister's headline-grabbing dour personality. Having read Moving Britain Forward, I see now that the moody, brooding demeanour isn't Brown's fault. It's his father's fault. This is the first line of Sir Derek Wanless's introduction to the chapter "Modern Public Services":

"When I was a boy," Gordon said, "my father told me story after story about the fear which illness brought to families as they faced up to the crippling costs of seeking treatment for loved ones."
With a childhood like that, what hope was there for the boy?

No wonder he thinks

the 1980s will be remembered for young people sleeping rough in cardboard cities, young people without jobs, prospects or hope.
Everyone else remembers the 1980s for cocaine nights, champagne lunches and Christie Brinkley bending over a racing red Ferrari.

By his own, refreshing admission, our Gordo is a "democratic socialist", which, as I understand it from reading his own explanation, is a socialist who expects you to be grateful that they've agreed to be democratic too. It was jolly nice of them to postpone the bloody, violent revolution, I suppose. But Gordo dismisses me as just another cynical bastard, and the worst of it is that he makes me feel like one. When he talks of

giving every girl and every boy in every part of the world the right to schooling,
I feel guilty laughing. But that doesn't mean Robert Mugabe isn't in power. The people who applaud this stuff the loudest opposed getting rid of Saddam Hussein. And in North Korea, school kids are taught that when "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il was born on the peak of Mount Paektu, a double rainbow appeared in the sky together with a bright star.

Gordon Brown has been trying to move Britain forward for eleven years now. But his Labour governments have been a colossal failure - not by my standards, which are shockingly low, but by his own. He talks of a Britain free of dependency culture in which every individual realises his or her potential thanks to "a government on people's side": a nation free of ignorance with prosperity for all. The reality of his efforts is the family of Shannon Matthews.

Tellingly, the only person who believes Gordon Brown has improved Britain lives on the other side of the planet. Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand, thinks we should be grateful that Gordon Brown chose to:

give the best years of his life to the noble cause of the betterment of the people of Britain.
Yeah, I definitely feel Gordon Brown has made me a better person.

In 2004, Margaret Hodge, who then held the cabinet post of "Children's Minister" (really), said the Labour government were like "good nannies" who were

ensuring you can make real and informed choices for yourself.
This was probably the most honest statement to pass a politician's lips for the past fifty years. Hodge said,
Some may call it a nanny state, but I call it a force for good.
Gordon Brown disguises his nannying with flowery intellectualism. He thinks there's "a golden thread" that runs through British history. That thread, he says, is about
the individual standing firm for freedom and liberty against tyranny and the arbitrary use of power.
Well, yes. Only, Brown chucks us this scrap of meat only so he can leap to the self-serving conclusion that this liberty has manifested itself as "public service".

Last week in baseball, the Major League commissioner, Bud Selig, received the annual Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service. As far as I'm concerned, short of playing shortstop in the show, Selig has the best job in the world, for which he is also generously remunerated. I really don't think we need award him for the "sacrifice" he has made.

Gordon Brown thinks he is doing us a favour. Hence all this stuff at the moment about him being "the right man to lead this country". Who says that about themselves? A man who spends his days involved in "activist politics" and using terms like "mediating structures" when talking about your family.

And the terrifying truth about Brown's commitment to "public service" is that he's given himself a job for life:

As long as there is injustice not just in Britain but round the world; our work has only just begun.
Dominic Hilton is an editor of The Lizard magazine ( and a Research Fellow at the New Culture Forum. His blog, the Hilton Global Initiative, can be found at

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I'm impressed with your intellectual mettle. I would have quit reading sometime after the introduction.

Posted by: teh at May 24, 2008 06:58 AM

This is the most incisiverebuttal of post USSR socialism I have seen on the net. Put in the vernacular, it is fucking brilliant. (censor the copulative language if you wish). I love you, and I want to bear your children.

Posted by: grumpy old man at May 24, 2008 10:18 PM


Posted by: Mr Eugenides at May 25, 2008 11:33 AM

Fantastic rebuttal.

Though how you kept reading through that turgid nonsense is beyond me.

Posted by: Elusive Pimpernel at May 25, 2008 01:35 PM

Spot on. Just funny enough and just serious enough. Thanks to the Greek for the reference to it.

Posted by: Tom Forrest at May 26, 2008 12:42 PM

Do tell if it is printed on Andrex. My botty couldn't bear that Izal stuff.

Posted by: Patrick at May 26, 2008 09:25 PM

This should be compulsory reading for the entire 'governing class', especially the meatheads who run most Government departments.

Mr Cameron - you'll have a lot of civil servants - who genuinely believe in this kind of turgid nonsense - to fire when you get into power. I am happy to volunteer - given my strong sense of 'public service', 'courage', and 'sacrifice' - to perform this duty!

Posted by: Bishop Brennan at May 26, 2008 09:35 PM

Thank you very much for performing this public service. I am sure that your local Social Services dept. can arrange post-trauma counselling for you. Excellent analysis.

Posted by: BrianSJ at May 27, 2008 06:53 AM

Hilarious, well done. Brown's turgid offerings are a perfect example of 'all mouth and no trousers'.

Posted by: Graham Doll at May 27, 2008 08:44 AM

Brilliant, today debunk Gordon Brown.....tomorrow, Common Purpose?

Posted by: Stephen at May 27, 2008 09:17 AM

this is brilliant - please tell me this is going to being sent to a wider audience !!!

Posted by: hysteria at May 27, 2008 07:04 PM

One of the best summary of New Labour socialist project I've read. I've lived in a communist country in the 70s and 80s and I'm horrified to see the similarities between the "governments" there then and here now. Just take away the secret police (and there wasn't much of it in the 80s as by then it wasn't really that much needed). In 1989 I foolishly thought that that was it and it would never come back.

Posted by: Londoner at May 28, 2008 10:11 AM

Excellent, please analize Obama's speeches next.

Posted by: Robert Reis at May 29, 2008 09:15 PM
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