The former PM has developed a penchant for sounding off on trending topics
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.