Gordon Brown is destroying himself

The former prime minister's speech on phone-hacking was everything he is not: self-pitying, vengeful

Gordon Brown has nothing to prove. He is one of the truly great political figures of his generation. Forget the jokes and the barbs. Few of his contemporaries, on either side of the political divide, have the singularity of purpose, reservoir of intellect or passion for social justice displayed by Labour's most recent prime minister.

But he is destroying himself. He is tearing apart his own reputation and legacy with a brutality his political opponents could only dream of.

That such a reputation and legacy exist is not open to debate. Brown is the engine room of the most successful Labour government in history. As chancellor, he delivered levels of prosperity that will be eyed enviously for generations to come. As prime minister, when the world stared into the financial abyss, it was he who successfully marshalled the global response.

And that legacy is now being crushed beneath a desperate, tortured, misguided lunge for public redemption.

There are times when the House of Commons is a showcase for all that is good about British public service. And there are times when it devours its own. Yesterday it stood back and allowed one of the great British parliamentarians to coldly and calmly commit political suicide.

You'll be hearing and reading a lot today about Gordon's speech in the phone-hacking debate. A tour-de-force. Vintage Gordon. A powerful sermon against the immorality of power without responsibility.

It was none of those things. It was everything Gordon Brown is not. Self-pitying. Simplistic. Vengeful.

Phone-hacking was everyone's fault but his own. The Tory government. The civil service. His own colleagues in the Home Office.

He had fought against the might of the Murdoch Empire. He had been planning to act. If only fate, (and by implication, the electorate), had not conspired against him.

Those Labour backbenchers who roared him on should take a long, hard look at themselves. They were like a crowd at a dog-fight, drunk by the spectacle, and their own proximity to it. The very people who moments before had voiced their approval at Ed Miliband's skilful ability to secure cross-party consensus were suddenly baying like football hooligans at any Tory MP who, legitimately, attempted to intervene.

Phone-hacking is a disgusting affair. Corruption, cowardice and criminality are its hallmarks; the Dowlers, the families of the 7/7 dead and the fallen of Afghanistan its victims. Do we really have to add Brown to their number?

I spent yesterday asking people what they thought Gordon was trying to achieve. "He's freelancing," said one Labour insider. "He's out on his own. He's not talking to Ed or anyone about this". I asked someone else if anyone was trying to advise him. "Yes," came the answer, "but he won't listen".

Someone has to make him. Here's Sky's Jon Craig's description of the debate; "I couldn't help noticing a stunned silence from most members of the Labour frontbench and from wise old grandees like Jack Straw. A short time earlier, Ed Miliband had won plaudits from senior Conservatives for the measured, reasonable and consensual tone of his speech opening the debate. Gordon Brown was none of these."

The Telegraph's Allison Pearson:

For Brown to complain about the invasion of "private grief" was like Faust moaning that someone had forged his signature on the pact with the Devil. Brown told the BBC, "There was nothing you could do, you're in public life."

Actually, there were plenty of things that Brown, as a senior member of the New Labour government, could and should have done. He could have told Brooks that it was a private medical matter under Press Complaints Commission rules and she would not have been able to print a word. Or he could have gone completely crazy and put moral principle before political advantage -- a quality he extols in his book Courage. But the fact is, Gordon wanted to help Rebekah Brooks out. However upset he and Sarah were, the thought of upsetting the Murdoch empire was worse.

One Labour MP I spoke to who worked closely with Gordon during his time in government could literally not believe the stance he was adopting on the phone-hacking issue; "What are we getting? Gordon Brown, 'how I stood up to Murdoch'. Jesus. Is he serious?"

Gordon Brown is a man in pain. The pain of defeat. The pain of public rejection. The pain of an unfulfilled political journey.Those are legitimate emotions; raw and genuine. And raw and genuine is what Gordon Brown is.

But as well as revealing the real Gordon Brown, those emotions are also obscuring him. He is so much better than this. A rambling list of hostile newspapers headlines. Some bitter responses to a bunch of second grade Tory back-benchers. Is this really how Gordon Brown wants us to remember him?

Gordon Brown has nothing to prove to anyone. Least of all himself.

 

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear