“To be sincere,” said Oscar Wilde, “is such a difficult pose to keep up.” Just ask Gordon Brown.
According to the experts on these things, the turning point in the just-ended British election campaign was the moment when the Labour leader and (for the time being) prime minister sat back in his Jaguar and, with his television lapel microphone still live, berated his staff for sending him on an agonizing meet-and-greet in the northwestern English town of Rochdale. He was particularly irritated by his chat with a local widow named Gillian Duffy, a long-time Labour voter who had pressed him on his government’s policies on economics and immigration. “That bigoted woman,” he called her.
The ultimate effect of the encounter on Brown’s political fortunes remains to be seen (polling at press time had the race too close to call), but what is certain is that it marked the full and final emergence of British politics into a political realm that we in North America have long known as bulls–t. Today’s successful candidate is less interested in telling the truth than in being seen as sincere, as he tries desperately to provide the best possible representation of himself to his audience.
For Gordon Brown, that has always been a politically dodgy task. Unlike his predecessor and rival Tony Blair—who was charming, enthusiastic, and bubbling with optimism—Brown has long struggled with the perception that he’s not a very nice guy in private, possessed of a violent temper and prone to screaming at his staff. In a widely quoted line, a British politics professor said that the incident with Ms. Duffy “crystallized widespread doubts about Brown, that is he is grumpy and misanthropic.” It probably doesn’t help that while Blair remained boyishly handsome, Brown looks like a sock-puppeteer’s interpretation of an undertaker.
There was a time when being grumpy and misanthropic was something close to a job description for British prime ministers. Winston Churchill was not cheerful, nor was he particularly known for his love of individuals. Ditto for Margaret Thatcher, the other dominant figure in 20th-century British politics. What made them such effective leaders was, at least in part, their fearlessness and almost complete indifference to what other people thought of them.
We claim to want similar character traits in our leaders today. In poll after poll, voters say that what they hate about politics is how fake and scripted it is, how turned off they are by pandering politicians who stick firmly to their talking points and hide behind their spin doctors and their image consultants. What we desire, we say, is truth and honesty, a leader who is willing to speak off the cuff and from the heart, without regard for how it will play in the overnight tracking polls.
Gordon Brown’s manhandling by a press that was itself utterly egged on by the public puts the lie to all of that. The fact of the matter is, we don’t actually want more truth and spontaneity in our politics. At best, what we want is truth and spontaneity only when it mirrors our own values and ideals, which is why frank and open talk is punished far more often than it is rewarded. Just look at Joe Biden, whose tenure as VP of the United States is being increasingly celebrated as a nonstop gaffe-a-thon. Or consider for a moment that Gordon Brown was probably right about Gillian Duffy. We demand that our politicians be good people who are eager to please, as well as good leaders, and then act all shocked when they increasingly look for refuge in their image consultants and their talking points.
All politicians have to shake hands, kiss babies, and listen to boring lectures from ignorant constituents, while pretending all the while to be delighted and engaged. That’s been the meat and mead of retail politics for centuries, and it is just a concession to the fact that a great deal of politics is theatre. What distinguishes the practice of politics today is that there is no longer anything, anywhere, that is considered offstage, and the result is not sincerity but something much different: a way of presenting oneself to that world that is characterized by its capacity to serve as high-grade farm fertilizer.
You would be hard-pressed to find an incident more thoroughly steeped in it than Mr. Brown’s unfortunate stroll through Rochdale. Here he is, at a public event staged by his handlers and fully miked up for the benefit of the television cameras. Afterwards, he says something completely honest and unguarded to his aides, and the television network decides to violate what was once considered the most basic standard of journalistic integrity by making the tape public. When everyone freaks out, Brown defies the advice from his handlers and visits the woman to apologize. That would have been the considerate thing to do in any case, except that it consisted of a 45-minute meeting during which he apparently spent most of the time trying to convince Duffy to come outside and shake his hand for the cameras.
In the end, the person who inadvertently put her finger on what was going on was a 66-year-old widow who spent 30 years as a social worker, and who went out to the shop for a loaf of bread and found herself at the centre of a thoroughly 21st-century media confection. When asked what she thought of the whole thing, Gillian Duffy said she was not so much angry about it as simply sad. “Sometimes I don’t think these politicians live in the real world,” she said.