It was painful to watch. In front of camera, an elderly Scot invited the prime minister to estimate her age….
It was painful to watch. In front of camera, an elderly Scot invited the prime minister to estimate her age. Mr Brown was clearly flummoxed. I am not sure why. Old ladies are up to these tricks all the time and the experienced politician should have a nice line in flattery to deal with them. One could see how, in more expert hands, the moment would have been turned to advantage. ‘What a card that Gordon Brown is, after all,’ people would have murmured into their tea.
Mr Brown, however, hesitated. Even the simplest exchange of banter eluded him. He turned to his wife, who once ran a PR business, and sought her opinion on the age of this deeply annoying elector. Sarah too was flustered and shook her head, saying she had no idea.
‘Well,’ said Mr Brown, in a slightly challenging manner, ‘what age are you?’
She wasn’t having any of it. ‘Come on, tell me how old you think I am,’ she persisted – until, finally, she put the prime minister out of his misery.
The incident on the factory floor did not have quite the same cringe-making properties. Bad enough, though.
‘Hi, guys,’ announced the prime minister on arrival.
Now, I don’t see Gordon Brown as a ‘Hi, guys’ sort of person. ‘Hi, guys’ is a phrase I associate with waiters in a certain type of restaurant, followed by ‘Can I get yous guys a drink?’ But there it was, and there he was, attempting to bond with the core Labour vote, assuming it still exists.
‘Why is the place empty?’ was his first question.
They did not reply: ‘Because they’ve just closed us down and we’re all redundant’, although they must have been tempted.
Instead they said: ‘Because we’ve been waiting for you to arrive.’ The logic of this reply was not immediately obvious, but Mr Brown laughed in that hearty way of his, as if an empty factory floor waiting for his arrival was the most natural thing in the world.
These vignettes from the campaign – ‘the campaign trail’ as it used to be called – underline what is generally recognised about the prime minister: he has no gift for small talk, the inane pleasantries of social intercourse. From his lips, it all sounds embarrassingly forced. Gordon Brown would be hopeless on the bus to Kilmarnock in the morning, having to deal with villagers banging on about the inadequacies of public transport and the late arrival of the daffies. I sympathise with the prime minister. Small talk is not talk worth talking about. But, from politicians, it is expected every four or five years when they emerge blinking from their non-smoke-filled rooms to re-engage briefly with the proletariat.
With Mr Brown, it is possible that the communications problem goes a little deeper. When he was young, just starting out in politics, I once spent 20 minutes in his company. There were just the two of us in a darkened studio. I had found most politicians conversationally adept, some excessively. But there was no doing with young Gordon. There was no point of human contact. Outside the narrow sphere of our interview topic, he had nothing – I mean, nothing – to say. Was it simply personal antipathy? I began to think so when, as soon as the interview was over, he strode across Studio A in search of the nearest exit. No green room for Gordon; no pleasant chat and drinks afterwards. He looked and sounded like a young man in a hurry. Later I came to realise that he was probably like that with most people.
Intellectually arrogant, socially maladroit – the prime minister, from most accounts, seems to combine these unattractive characteristics. Even one of his friends, writing recently in SR, was moved to describe him as cranky, among other more endearing qualities. How he ever negotiated the social rituals of Labour beer halls remains something of a mystery. Yet I confess that, in recent times, and particularly during the present campaign, I have warmed to him somewhat.
Why? Partly it is his new status as the underdog, the man they are ready to count down and out a week on Friday. The current suggestion that a deputation from his own party will arrive in Downing Street a few days after the election bearing some ultimatum from young Mr Clegg would be the final humiliation; I hope he is spared it. Partly it is an instinctive sympathy for his fortitude in the face of physical adversity and personal sorrow. Partly it is admiration for his strength of mind (whatever you think of his policies) and distaste that, such is the shallowness of the campaign, this has not been appreciated in either of the television debates so far. Partly it is his sheer bloody-minded resilence in the face of every obstacle.
There comes a point in some criminal trials when you sense that the accused has started to convince himself that, despite all the evidence incriminating him, he will be walk free. Gordon Brown may have arrived at this point: the human capacity for self-delusion should never be under-estimated. But I prefer an alternative theory. He knows this is his last stand and he has resolved to be defiant to the end. Yet here is a remarkable fact. Eight days from polling day, the strange Scotsman who has been facing almost certain electoral defeat, the derision of the media, and the constant disloyalty of colleagues for almost the whole of his premiership, still has a sporting chance of controlling the largest number of seats in the new House of Commons.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.