Caution: image rehabilitation in progress

6 Sep 2016


When former US President Richard Nixon left office in disgrace in August 1974, following the Watergate Scandal, he was in many ways a broken man with a public image that seemed beyond repair. However, thanks to an overly-forgiving media, a succeeding president more interested in pardoning rather than prosecuting him, and twenty years of writing, travelling and public speaking, Nixon had rehabilitated his image to such an extent that, when it came to his funeral in 1994, his presidential crimes were barely touched upon. Instead, then-president Bill Clinton, delivering the eulogy, gave the impression that Tricky Dicky was one of the greatest men ever to lead America.


I mention Nixon because it has been said more than once that our own former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, somewhat resembles the 37th President of the United States. Both were tempestuous, obsessive characters who often struggled when it came to ingratiating themselves with the ordinary voter. And both were in many ways the authors of their own destruction: Nixon through corruption and Brown through financial avarice. Though no criminal, our last Labour Prime Minister continues to resemble Nixon as a private citizen, raking in cash through after-dinner speaking, indulging in some light electioneering, and commenting judiciously on political events, though never so much as to annoy anybody.


Brown is one of the central figures in Speaking Out, the recently published memoirs of Ed Balls. Your correspondent has not yet completed reading this lengthy publication, though from what he has read so far and from the extracts published in the newspapers, it appears Brown comes out of the book quite well. As you would expect, there is a lot of emphasis on what the last Labour government achieved, but less reflection on the reasons as to why it could not have achieve more, such as Brown’s attempts to undermine his then-boss, Tony Blair, out of an obsessive belief that he needed to be Prime Minister. When his warped ambition was finally realised in 2007, Brown found he couldn’t handle being in charge after all, ordering lackeys to publish smear stories about the Tories rather than face up to the economic crisis and expenses scandal.


Labour’s inability to argue for itself and successfully discredit the Tories has been a serious problem in the last decade, and both Brown and Balls should bear a great deal of the responsibility for this. Shamefully, however, now that they are out of parliament, both me have been largely let off the hook. Brown’s mind-boggling incompetence is barely mentioned in public discourse, while Ed Balls, whose Budget response speeches often read as if English were his second language, is now competing for national treasure status by appearing on Strictly Come Dancing (prepare for some lazy gags about Balls-ups in the Ballroom). Yet not all politicians get off so lightly.


A figure such as Nick Clegg, for example, is condemned forever to be remembered either for a particular style of governing, or, in the former LibDem leader’s case, a particular policy. The hike in tuition fees, though unfair in itself, was doubly poisonous for him and his colleagues as it shredded their claim to be the party of new, principled politics. In his new book, Between the Extremes, which your correspondent has not yet mustered the strength to buy let alone open, Clegg has also tried to wash over his failings while in office. He has done this first by appealing to public sympathy by claiming he suffered from stress-induced pneumonia while in office, and secondly by attempting to distance himself from former colleagues. George Osborne, in Clegg’s view, saw welfare as a ‘bottomless pit of savings’ and had no understanding of the human consequences of the austerity regime. It is a tricky balancing act: for Clegg has to attack Tory callousness without prompting the reader to wonder why, if the Tories were so bloody awful, Clegg enabled them for a full five-year term.


The tuition fees debacle is Nick Clegg’s Iraq War, an event which trumped everything else, good or bad, that he did while in office. Speaking of Iraq, it is hard to see how Tony Blair’s reputation will ever recover, though we know how desperately he wishes we could all change the subject. At least Margaret Thatcher had the self-respect to get on with the job and not be in a state of perpetual fear over whether people liked her. She, like Blair and Clegg, continue to be remembered because the public can easily identify them with a (usually controversial) decision. Nonentities like Gordon Brown and Ed Balls will go the way of John Major and Jim Callaghan: likeable in their autumn years but generally forgotten when history comes to be written.


And what of our most recent ex-Prime Minister? How will he be remembered? David Cameron only resigned a few months ago, but that is not the only reason as to why it is too early to guess at the nature of his ‘legacy.’ This is because the implications of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union are not yet known. If it is a success, and in hindsight the country seems to have made wise choice in leaving an institution that may well crumble to pieces, then Cameron will be able to turn a blind eye to his other failings as Prime Minister, and instead flaunt the medals of a defeat. But if Brexit really is as bad as the Remain propaganda warned us, Cameron would be wise to never show his face in public life again. Few Prime Ministers have been so foolish as to gamble their own career, as well as the livelihoods and prosperity of many of their compatriots, in other to placate the tensions in their own party. And it is indeed an irony of history that Europe, an issue to which Ted Heath devoted himself, would ruin the premierships of his three Conservative successors.


Nor should we forget, as Ed Balls puts on his dance shoes and as Gordon Brown gives us his thoughts about the future of the union, that these men are largely to blame for the state the Labour Party, and with it the country, is now in. Corbyn is exacerbating the problem, for sure, but he is also the consequence of more latent issue beneath the surface of the party. Moderate figures, such as Brown, and the two Eds, capitulated, and now we are living with the consequences. So as you watch Ed Balls prance around like a Dad gate-crashing his teenage daughter’s birthday party, do try to remember that for all its meretricious charm, Strictly Come Dancing has become an unlikely part of the dubious magic of image rehabilitation, encouraging the public to forget the culpability of those who inaugurated a long national nightmare, to borrow a phrase from Nixon’s time, that shows no chance of ending soon.


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