NEWS ANALYSIS: The inimitable style of Brown

A political writer looks at what role Gordon Brown’s new book, Courage, will play in his campaign to win UK hearts and minds in his quest to become PM.

Brown: new book
Brown: new book

Catherine Bennett’s rather unkind review in The Guardian on April 19 began: ‘Whoever wrote Gordon Brown’s book Courage…’

I can tell her who wrote it. Gordon Brown did. He told me so himself.

No, I’m not stupid enough to believe it just because a politician says so – though Brown is straighter than most –but having spent the past two months writing a biography of Brown for publication in the summer, having read his speeches, his early writing, even his Glasgow University PhD thesis, I’m steeped in the Brown style. It’s inimitable, and it’s all over Courage.

The book consists of eight essays about people whose lives demonstrate courage, from Nelson Mandela to ­Edith Cavell.

Brown is not a great stylist. His writing reflects his character: a ferociously clever and studious man, known in his student days as Beaver Brown, who thinks of words as building blocks, and places them on top of each other efficiently but without elegance.

‘Here was altruistic courage: sacrifice and determination for a higher purpose; the courage that endures and prevails, and eventually dignifies all humanity – and so often it was an expression of both strength of character and strength of belief.’ I do not know anyone other than Brown who could have written that sentence.

PR speak this book is not
It’s better than the vapid bits of marketingspeak we are used to from our outgoing Prime Minister. In 1996, the year before he became PM, Tony Blair published New Britain – My Vision of a Young Country, which is as dire as the title suggests, compressing the largest possible number of feel­good words into the smallest possible amount of meaning.

Book cover

But Blair’s book was a conscious PR strategy. Courage is not. The fact that it comes out the summer Brown becomes Prime Minister is an accident. It had its genesis in the tragic death of his 10-day-old daughter, Jennifer, in 2002. He wanted to do something to raise money for the charity set up in her name and, according to one of his friends, writing it was also a form of therapy.

He is none of these things, and his PR advisers have rightly been trying to show the world the amusing, erudite man with an easy, gurgling laugh who entertained me to breakfast the other day in 11 Downing Street. I imagine they would have advised against publication. I doubt if they were asked.

The book makes Gordon Brown sound ‘serious, sententious and worthy’.

The book has advantages for people who want to lobby Brown, as Phil Kelly, director of Butler Kelly points out. ‘The few people who read it will have some idea of the way Brown thinks,’ he ­argues. ‘Anything that contributes to an understanding of what motivates politicians is good for those who want to influence them. I’d rather they read a poli­tician’s own words than rely on media reports. Politics is a serious business; soundbites don’t always give people a clear idea of what’s really going on.’

But Brown had to think about how Courage would play with the voters. It has the advantage of showing him as a caring, thinking man, without committing him to anything (except one thing: the choice of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi as one of his subjects commits him to doing whatever he can about her plight – and he is aware of that).

British politicians avoid tying them­selves to definite policies. Brown’s collected speeches, published last year, are long on political philosophy and short on policy spe­ci­fics. They are also dense and closely argued, making few concessions to the reader in a hurry.

Treading a fine line
Brown’s PR problem is this. He has to be different – ‘Tony Blair Mark 2’ will be rejected by the voters as surely they rejected Blair in last week’s local elections. But rejecting too much of Blairism will frighten away what ­Labour has come to call Middle England. It is a fine line which so far Brown has trodden with unerring delicacy.

Avoiding specific policy commitments is a feature of British politics, more so than in France or the US, where writing detailed, compelling books is often part of the successful politician’s PR armoury. Barack Obama’s considerable literary talent is one of the things that have made him the first black American to get within sniffing distance of the presidency. His new book, The Audacity of Hope, is unexpectedly readable and compelling.

And the French expect their would-be leaders to produce, somewhere near election time, weighty books containing their philosophy. There was an 85% turnout in the French presidential election; general election turnout in the UK hovers around 60%. Nicolas Sarkozy’s success was partly the result of an interesting book called Testi­mony. It contributed to his victory, ­being by general consent better than Segolene Royal’s book, Now. And it sold a stunning 310,000 copies by last October. The print run for Gordon Brown’s book will be a fraction of that.

Courage will not turn the polls around. It will not do for Brown what Testimony did for Sarkozy or The ­Audacity of Hope for Obama. But, combined with a new style of government, a more formal way of making decisions, greater gravitas at Number 10 and a plan for withdrawal from Iraq, it may contribute towards an image that is sufficiently far from Blair’s to reassure voters, but not so far that it frightens them.

Gordon Brownby Francis Beckett (pictured, above) will be published by Politicos in the summer.

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