Political sketch: Return of the Great Sulk

Gordon's bully boys and a Bullingdon original at Leveson.

 

The trouble about feeling sorry for Gordon Brown is that he got in there first and has no intention of giving up the position to anyone else. 

The Great Sulk emerged from two years of voluntary exile in his Scottish fastness — apart from occasional forays abroad to earn vast sums —and it was as if he had never been away.

Still the slept-in face, still the rictus grin and still the answers to questions never asked as the former Prime Minister turned up at the Leveson inquiry and promised honesty on his relations with the press.

It was as if a dam had burst as Gordon got his first chance since the General Election to say his piece about some of those who brought about his downfall.

Each short question from the rather stunned interrogator Robert Jay provoked a speech in reply and chapter and verse rebuttal from a man who denied being obsessed by the news he “barely read”. 

Indeed in this rather bizarre world we learned that Gordon  believes Rupert Murdoch “deserves respect” for building his media empire and the two men  had a special bond because they were both “of the manse”. The Mr Nasty in the relationship was in reality Murdoch minor James, who clearly did not share his Dad’s tartan sympathies.

But even that special link must have run out when the Murdoch major said an “unbalanced” Gordon had threatened to go to war with his company after the Sun switched from Labour to the Tories in 2009.

That conversation, talked about from the same seat by his Presbyterian pal just a few  weeks ago, ”did not take place” said Gordon clearly unhappy about the suggestion he had been a bit bonkers.

We learned too of his further anger at the Sun’s publication of details of his son’s cystic fibrosis which he said he now knew had clearly been leaked and which he felt he and his wife were pressurised by editor Rebekah Brooks into confirming.

But why serious socialising and partying  went on well after that event between Sarah Brown and Mrs Brooks, including a pyjama party at Chequers for her 40th birthday, was because Sarah “finds the good in everyone ”.

And it was clearly Gordon’s turn to “find the good” as questions turned to the more flamboyant  members of his own inner circle, special advisors Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride.

His “attack dogs”, as Robert Jay described his media managers, were nothing of the sort and were never guilty of the systematic briefings against his opponents they had been accused of said a suddenly nervous Gordon.

Indeed these other sons of the manse-clearly once, twice or even thrice removed had never briefed against Tony Blair, Alistair Darling, John Major, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and anyone else - and if they had, said Gordon, they had done so without his agreement, permission and knowledge - and it was nothing to do with him.

Were the bully boys involved in trying to force Tony’s departure from office, asked Jay.

“I would hope not," said Gordon.

As the press in the audience fought to swallow this news of the innocence of the Whelan/McBride axis, Gordon said his ambition had been “to get rid of spin”. 

As his evidence into his indifference continued you noticed that, unlike all other witnesses, Gordon rarely referred to his documents and he seemed to remember just about every detail of every slight - and indeed every email.

If there had been naughty behaviour it had been “without [his] authorisation”.

Then suddenly it was over and Gordon went back into witness protection.

Gordon had been billed as merely an aperatif for the main event - the appearance of Chancellor George to face charges that he did knowingly persuade Dave to take on Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World, as official mouthpiece for the Tory party.

The News of the World may well have closed in shame and Mr Coulson departed awaiting the slow but serious steps of the police but George had no apologies to give as he had his half-day in court.

Polished of face and polished of style he emerged without a glove on him well in time for the kick-off of the England game after a Bullingdon boy display of bravura.

Yes, he had met with the Murdoch menagerie on loads of occasions but never had any improper conversations about their business and the BSkyB bid.

Indeed, said George, it was “a political inconvenience” to a party half of whose newspaper backers opposed the move.

And as for Andy, who he said was still a friend although he had not  “been able” to speak to him for a year, he had checked him out with Rebekah Brooks.

He’d asked Andy about phone hacking and accepted his word that nothing he had done at the News of  World would come back and bite him.

And as for the endorsement of the Sun at the General Election, “I think we could have won without it," he said.

If only Gordon could have thought the same.

 
Gordon Brown at the Leveson inquiry. Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

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