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Is Gordon Brown the new Brendan O’Neill?

September 24, 2021 - 2:00pm

Quietly, without much notice, Gordon Brown has become a freelance pundit.

There he is on Sky News, sounding off on the latest trending topic like Brendan O’Neill or Paul Mason. Here he is in the Guardian, the New Statesman, and Project Syndicate, cranking out think pieces on Emma Radacanu and Marcus Rashford.

What Brown has to say is not especially striking. He thought, like so many others in his generation, that progress was linear. Globalisation would become more global. Free trade would get freer. Boom would abolish bust.

Now, he still believes these things. “A new Britain is waiting to be born”, he writes in the Statesman. Funnily enough, it sounds just like the Britain he spoke and wrote about in the 1990s.

What is more striking is that Brown has been reduced to talking-head hack work at all.

My earliest political memories are of Gordon Brown trying — then painfully failing — to smile normally on camera. It was 2009, and the structure of British politics was changing. Traditional authority had weakened; deference towards institutions was evaporating.

Politicians were forced, as Peter Oborne detailed at the time, into a damaging and phony alliance with the media. Both had to sell a product to a mass audience. Both had to respond to surges of emotion about whatever was outraging or amusing the public on any given day. Fear, greed, sentimentality, and envy were converted into mechanisms for rule. Oborne called it “manipulative populism.”

So Gordon Brown was told to have opinions on Jade Goody and the Arctic Monkeys. (Put on the spot by a magazine journalist, Brown admitted he could not name a single song from the band’s first album.) Frog-marched into an interview with New Woman magazine, Brown claimed he had no preference between boxers and briefs, so long as they were bought from Marks & Spencers. Be normal, Gordon!

Then someone had the bright idea of making the Prime Minister field questions from Mumsnet. Brown was repeatedly asked — twelve times in fact — what his favourite biscuit was, without answering. Users of the site, according to Alwyn Turner’s All In It Together, “poured scorn” on Brown’s “inept” performance. “Maybe he needs to consult with his advisers on what would be the most vote-winning biscuit to admit to liking?” was one much-quoted comment. Years later, Brown wrote that he was not “an ideal fit” for these touchy-feely times.

“Manipulative populism” became the major style of British politics. It remains so now. Tides of popular emotion are uneasily surfed, rather than ignored. Brown and his team embraced it and contributed to its dominance in the 1990s and 2000s.

The problem was then that he was rubbish at it. By 2010 it felt like the entire media — television, the internet, the newspapers — had been invented to put Brown into embarrassing positions. The pack hounded him.

A decade later the outcome of the alliance between the media and politicians is much clearer. In spite of Leveson, the media sets the tone of national politics, and pushes politicians around. A columnist is Prime Minister, and arguably the most powerful minister in his government started his career at the Times. Jeremy Corbyn tried to build a grassroots, digital movement that bypassed traditional media channels that his team despised. He was crushed.

Brown has ended up a minor part of those media channels now, where he is no doubt widely ignored. A small cog in the daily wheel of emotion and manipulation that he helped create.

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Keith Jefferson
Keith Jefferson
2 years ago

A bit unfair on Brendan O’Neill to compare Brown’s latest media wittering to his. I find Brendan a little too bombastic for my liking and find the uniformity of opinion within his Spiked crowd a bit creepy. But at least Brendan will always express an opinion with a solid argument behind it and I find his pieces interesting and entertaining, whether or not I agree. You can’t compare this with Brown’s reluctance to even express an opinion on choice of underwear or biscuits.
PS: I am guessing Brendan would prefer boxers (‘there should be no restrictions on freedom of movement’) and Garibaldi biscuits.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago

I couldn’t comment on either Brendan or Gordon’s media whoring, but I’d day Garibaldi were my favourite biscuits as a child. But you can’t get decent Garibaldis these days – far too dry. So my preference these days is ginger nuts – or those dead-fly biccies.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

Brendan O’Neill is honest – and writes and says what he thinks, regardless of whether his audience is already in agreement or not.
Gordon Brown has become a mere virtue signaller. Very few of his candid utterances match his public pronouncements – as Gillian Duffy can no doubt attest.
Gordon was wheeled out again this week in the Guardian to moan about the cynicism of Tory policy on welfare. Guardian readers lapped it up, as Gordon spoke of how he had lifted children out of poverty, whilst uncaring Tories wanted to impoverish them out of sheer malign cruelty or some such twaddle.
But look at unFlash Gordon’s record on child poverty and you’ll see the cynicism is his.
By using the “Relative poverty” metric, any child growing up in a household that lived on 60% of the median income or less, was classed as being “in poverty”. So, Brown, in a WHOLLY CYNICAL move to bolster the Govt’s record, targeted those households that fell just below the “60% of Median Income” – giving them tax credits that were enough – just enough – to put them above the line, and thus be able to grandly claim he’d “lifted 700 000 children out of poverty” â€Šâ€Š. by giving in some cases as little as an additional ÂŁ10 a week to that household.
A household with 4 children getting an extra tenner a week made NO appreciable difference to those children’s lives yet by doing that Mr Brown could make his bold claims about alleviating poverty and Labour could trumpet their success. It diverted billions of taxpayer’s money away from those at the very bottom of the ladder – whose plight was largely ignored because no amount of extra funding was likely to shift them up Gordon Brown’s spreadsheet appreciation of poverty.
The fact that Gordon still has the reputation of being the ‘principled one’ in the Blair/Brown axis perhaps demonstrates just how unprincipled the other half of the double act was.

Brandon Nesloney
Brandon Nesloney
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Pip Pip and Cheerios everyone! Now before I begin, I ask respectfully that you will give my opinion more than justa scoff due to my being American version of this fun! First and foremost, you all are so intelligent! Really. You’re views and opinions and insights into the players minds is furthest from the workings actually being constructed in their moments of agony and anguish. But shit on them, we’re peasants! Mere entertainment for your egos right? “I think!” Not to piss in people’s Wheaties from across the pond but what’s that radio man’s name that loves to spoof Thaddy up? Ryan? I need his contact info if anyone has that readily available. Please and thanks in advance. Now I feel i should mop up my mess on my way for the sake that I’d honestly like to at some point come enjoy the beer an unmet friend and I have planned for some time and my intentions are not to come and beat on my chest or meet for that matter. It just stings you know to read you alls “solid off kilter” insight and opinion then watch as you walk off toupee flying off without you the wiser! It’s insulting then to sit across from you and listen as you laugh and under your breath say things that are intended to only you all know what, but you know what friends? Keep this in mind as you’re Really drilling one of us next time, remind yourself how much of a “half truth”, and important to No one other than who again, that YOU my friend are just as much entertainment to those who are watching from places you’d never even think of are having a laugh them selves! Irony or romance or just shitty Tele? I don’t watch it obviously and if the tone of this doesn’t imply to some extent that I really just don’t think it’s very nice to watch another suffer while the over uninformed sits highly upon their throne and cast shade! f**k Off if you don’t mind. But, if you’ll buy it, they were already giving it away! Genius! Not you, “Them” obviously. So step back, pull the knife from a man’s ribs and consider the “manipulative populations” may be feeding you icing cover shit! Knowingly! AND LOVING WATCHING THE FREAKS COME OUT! Oh yeah, for the record… I haven’t a clue, I do in fact smoke that shit, and more so I’m man enough to also admit, “This has been for my own good!” NOW, I’m grown, tired of the shit and unless anyone has a real set to face me and explain this to me …. f**k OFF EVERYBODY! HAVE A SHITTY DAY! Friends, these opinions should mean as much as the words they’re put together with! Be healthy and well. Thadeus Richards

Philip L
Philip L
2 years ago

Is Gordon Brown the new Brendan O’Neill? No.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Brown was a PM who had never led his party to an election.
We were just told he was going to be our PM when Blair did his ten years, and so he was appointed.
Somewhat like Americans were told that Hillary Clinton was going to be their next president and they should just comply.
Unfortunately for her, she had to face an election first.

Michael Hobson
Michael Hobson
2 years ago

This is a decent piece but the singling out of O’Neill and Mason for comparison with Brown seems random and clumsy. Why those two rather than any of the other pundits that regularly appear on our screens? Given that both men in their different ways seem strongly driven by genuine belief it seems unreasonable to mention them in an article about manipulative populism. Both are at times predictable in their concerns and points of view but I can’t see that either can be described as banal and insincere in the way Brown is in the instances cited here.

Last edited 2 years ago by Michael Hobson
Steve Walker
Steve Walker
2 years ago

This isn’t a bad article by any means but the title is pure clickbait.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
2 years ago

Is it Brendan O’Neill’s honesty that bothers you?
Or his courage to speak out on issues most of your ilk avoid for fear of incurring the opprobrium of the liberal commentariat?

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

I can say, in all honesty, that I have not taken any notice of anything that Gordon Brown has said since he left office.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

I had to check Mr O’Neil.
For a Libertarian Marxist he has some sound views