The Brown revolution begins

Unlike 1997, they were not cheering in the streets, but the arrival of the new prime minister could

Slowly but relentlessly the Brown revolution is coming. It's a funny sort of insurrection, characterised by caution and stealth rather than the flag-waving and dancing in the streets that would usually accompany such momentous events. It has none of the fanfare that greeted that mildest of political insurgencies - the arrival of new Labour in power a decade ago. But there are already signs that the new era could, potentially, be far more radical than anything Tony Blair thought possible.

The commitment to constitutional reform, announced in the speech with which Gordon Brown launched his leadership campaign, looked to some like a smokescreen to hide the lack of hard policy. The subsequent approach to Lord Ashdown to serve in a "cabinet of all the talents" demonstrated that Brown was indeed ready to usher in genuine change in the way we do politics in Britain.

Now those around the new Prime Minister are preparing to take a significant step which would mark a paradigm shift in the political culture.

A Bill of Rights, enshrining the human rights and social responsibilities of each person under law, would go some way to transforming the relationship between the individual and the state. Britons would begin to make the journey from being subjects to becoming citizens. There are those within the Brown camp who believe it could also help clarify the rights established by incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. Although no one is suggesting sweeping aside the Human Rights Act, despite the hostility shown to it by the right-wing press, it is thought that a domestic Bill of Rights would have a more distinctly British feel.

Brown's determination to reform the way we are governed, from local councils right up to the post of prime minister itself, is deeply felt. The mechanism for bringing about the reforms is already in place. Citizens' juries would discuss the various options for reform, before recommendations were passed to a constitutional convention of experts and campaigners for reform. The proposals put to parliament would remain highly consultative, in what one Brown adviser says would be "the greenest green paper you have ever seen". At each step the emphasis would be on gaining the views of the public, experts, interest groups and MPs.

The resulting Bill of Rights, with Brown's much vaunted "Britishness" written down in black and white, would then be used in schools and citizenship ceremonies to establish a set of commonly held values.

Professor Francesca Klug of the London School of Economics, whom Brown has quoted in his speeches, says the PM must be careful not to use the bill to water down what has already been established. "We already effectively have a Bill of Rights. It's called the Human Rights Act. But it was brought in with the minimum of consultation and no attempt was made to sell it to the British public. If they go further it should be with the engagement with the British people to establish the rights they actually want written down."

The discussion is already well advanced. Klug, for instance, will be presenting a pamphlet - entitled What Is A Bill of Rights For? - at a seminar for the Brownite think tank the Smith Institute at Downing Street in just over a week's time.

Coming round

A further shift in the political landscape is marked by the open discussion over electoral reform, once a no-go area for Labour politicians. After years of resistance, Brown and many of those around him have warmed to the idea, in principle at least, of shaking up the way we vote for those who represent us in parliament. The new PM remains unconvinced by any system that severs the link to the constituency and is deeply sceptical of anything that involves centrally controlled party lists. But he is coming round to the belief that the first-past-the-post system is past its sell-by date.

As the New Statesman reported three weeks ago, those around Brown are looking carefully at the "alternative vote" system in which people place candidates in a constituency in order of preference. Second preferences are transferred as candidates drop out until one person gets more than 50 per cent of the vote. This was the process used to elect Brown's deputy, Harriet Harman, so what's good enough for the Labour Party could turn out to be good enough for the rest of Britain. Harman herself is known to be sympathetic to change as are the Brownite power couple Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. But there are still those in the inner circle such as the West Bromwich MP, Tom Watson, who have been vocal cheerleaders for the retention of the present system.

Nevertheless, campaigners have sensed that change is in the air. The Electoral Reform Society has launched a publicity campaign welcoming Brown into his new job. Carefully worded, its advertisements make a series of demands that the new PM would find it hard to disagree with. All elections should be genuine contests; voters should be able to rank their choice in order of preference and the political system should better reflect the views and diversity of the electorate. "Gordon Brown has kept his cards very close to his chest on this," says Ken Ritchie, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. "This is not an argument he has needed to have until now. But as leader everything is different."

As with the Bill of Rights, nothing will be announced as a done deal. Brown intends to have a lengthy cabinet discussion even before he announces the consultation process. He will be tapping into an appetite for change within the parliamentary Labour Party and even the government itself. One minister approached the NS this week to argue that he now believed the abolition of the first-past-the post system was essential to renewing politics. Even Jack Straw's historical allegiance to first-past-the-post is said to be weakening.

With all parties increasingly concentrating their resources on the small number of marginal seats necessary to win an election, there is the growing feeling that change is essential to ensure that citizens feel their vote really matters. Although some will argue that a switch to the "alternative vote" system will still not produce a parliament that accurately reflects each party's share of the vote, compromise is in the air. John Denham, for instance, the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, who has long been an advocate of reform, is said to have been persuaded that the alternative vote system may provide a pragmatic solution.

In his swansong performance to parliament, Blair admitted what his critics had long suspected, that he was not "a House of Commons man". Nor, he could have said, was he much of a cabinet man, nor a true Labour Party man. Brown has already pledged to be all three. But those who have worked with a man hardly known for his collegiate manner remain to be convinced.

Real man emerges

The first stage of the Brown revolution has to begin with the man himself. The process of coronation has been good for him. He visibly relaxed as the day approached. One close friend says there are now signs that the real Gordon Brown is finally emerging: "I'm just happy for him and you can see that he is beginning to enjoy himself. The smile is really his smile now."

But old habits die hard. Brown and his inner circle have developed a near addiction to conspiracy and their paranoia has often been tangible. I had a taste of this when I first took the job as the NS political editor. After my first column, which discussed one of David Blunkett's several misdemeanours, Sky News reported this as a Brownite plot to destabilise one of Tony Blair's closest allies (this magazine is wrongly seen in some circles as sympathetic to the Brown cause). However, when I mentioned this conspiracy theory to two ministerial allies of the chancellor at Labour conference a few days later, they had already convinced themselves they were indeed responsible for the plot against Blunkett. Every political journalist has a similar story to tell.

Many remain to be convinced that a politician who has saved his most intimate political thoughts for a handful of trusted allies and advisers will be prepared to take on board the views of cabinet colleagues, let alone the wider public.

The irony of the present situation, where Brown has wanted to save all announcements for the cabinet and parliament, is that the atmosphere of secrecy has been even more intense. Ahead of the reshuffle, ministers sought out journalists for news. But as one said to me on Monday: "I know they are running a very tight ship and none of us has heard so much as a whisper. But I bet Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander have a pretty good idea of what is going on."

The leadership "election" has demonstrated that Brown has the ability to reinvent himself. "Reformation" would perhaps be a better word than "revolution" considering Brown's political roots and Protestant background, but he needs to demonstrate quickly that the era of conspiratorial sofa politics is over. For that, the real transformation will have to come from inside Brown's head.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred