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28 June 2007

Decoding Gordon

There may not have been a contest but Gordon Brown still spent six weeks campaignin

By Hari Kunzru

So here’s my Gordon Brown story. It’s 2004 and I’m in a lift at 30 St Mary Axe, better known to Londoners as “the Gherkin”. The Gherkin is the year’s big new thing on the skyline and I’m about to be shot up to the glass glans on the 40th floor, where the editor of the Guardian is holding a summer party. It’s like being one of the sperm in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. I’m standing next to the artists Francis Upritchard and Grayson Perry, who is looking fetching in a hot pink PVC Alice dress with black lace trim. Wait a moment, he says. Someone else wants to get in. Accompanied by an aide, Brown steps into the lift, looks at us for the briefest of moments, jams his tongue into his cheek, then stares fixedly at a point somewhere near the ceiling. The doors close.

I pass the next 30 seconds in a kind of private ecstasy as I implore providence to grant me a short conversation between the Iron Chancellor and the Turner prize-winning transvestite potter. What I’m after is something along the lines of:

“Nice frock, Grayson.”

“Thanks, Gordon. Nice economic policy, by the way.”

“Glad you like it.” etc.

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Doesn’t happen. As befits a professional politician, Brown breaks the ice, but somehow, for 39 floors, no one knows what to say to him. “I wonder who owns this place?” he asks. It’s not obvious who he’s talking to: he’s still looking at the ceiling. He may be thinking aloud. I can’t work out if he means:

a) He doesn’t know (unlikely);

b) He just can’t remember right at this minute. (Should I remind him? Is that the aide’s job?);

c) He’s panicked by Grayson’s outfit (not unheard of); or,

d) He’s making some kind of incredibly left-field joke.

Confused, I decide it’d be easiest to pretend I didn’t hear him. Franny and Grayson seem to have come to the same conclusion. When we get to the top and the doors open, everyone, including the Chancellor, seems relieved. I drink several Bellinis in quick succession. The party has an unsettled, apocalyptic tone. Politicians and commentators stalk each other over the canapés. The experience of being 180 metres up in the air inside a glass cone with a 360-degree view of London is giddying. For as long as Brown is in attendance, a helicopter flies tight circles around us, the noise of its rotors penetrating our glass sheath in great dull waves of sound. I catch several people nervously scanning the horizon. I realise they’re looking for planes.

Glasgow Labour Party hustings, 3 June 2007

It’s a cloak and dagger business, following the hustings. I’ve flown to Scotland without knowing exactly where I’m going, or when I’m supposed to be there. At the airport, I get a text with the details. When I arrive in Candleriggs, it seems the security provisions haven’t prevented 50 or so protesters from setting up outside the hall. There are banners for NO2ID, the Stop the War Coalition, a local anti-Trident campaign and the disabled workers of Remploy. Inside, several hundred Labour members have gathered to hear the message of their crown prince, then watch a debate between the various deputy leadership contenders, whose campaign materials are silting up on a table by the entrance.

Against a backdrop featuring a Union Jack and some smiling children, Brown works the floor. Hello, how are you, good to see you, how are you doing. He shakes hands and grins his strange grin, that 100-watt smile which isn’t matched by his hooded eyes. For the first time I’m properly aware of the difficulties partial-sightedness must present to a politician. Imagine Tony Blair’s “trust me” routine without the dewy-eyed grimace or the noble gaze into the distance. Brown looks much better than he did in the lift, when his skin was powdery white, giving him the appearance of a sleep- deprived ghost. Today, he appears fit, confident. Suddenly he’s standing in front of me.

“So this is the press side, is it? Now I know where not to take questions from, ha ha ha.”

He has an odd staccato laugh, which arrives in sudden triplet bursts. It’s rich in tone, simultaneously warm and cold, just like the smile. On the platform, he invokes Scottish Labour’s recent dead – John Smith, Robin Cook and Donald Dewar – and reveals that he “believes in the values of the Labour Party” – a phrase I’ll hear a lot in the next couple of weeks. I think it’s political code for “I am not Tony Blair”. I whisper snippets of translation to a Japanese journalist sitting next to me, who’s struggling to follow. In the interval after Brown’s speech, I try to explain the cultural differences between “old” and “new” Labour, but we get stuck on the connotation of “beer and sandwiches”.

Brown talks about consultation and carbon-free living. He talks about solidarity and common purpose, about the balance between security and civil liberties. He really gets going when he turns to global poverty, conjuring a vision of a world where the 80 million children who don’t attend school are given an education. We could be the first generation to achieve that, he says. He doesn’t tell us how, or to what extent he thinks it’s in his power to bring about as prime minister. But it sounds great, like one of those old-fashioned documentaries where they say that in the year 2525 we’ll all be living in space and getting our nutrition in pill form: 80 million developing world school places probably cost about the same as a couple of nuclear subs or a year’s small ground war, so let’s assume we’ve got the cash, but money’s surely the least of the obstacles in Brown’s way. To take him seriously, I’d have to imagine that the man’s planning to reform the entire global economic system, and then he’d have to go and stand outside Rupert Murdoch’s office and there’d be no cabin at Camp David and no room in the hot tub at Davos and, oh, all sorts of hideous consequences. But, if I wrestle my cynicism to the floor, I can agree that it’s nice to share an aspiration and there are worse things you could hear from the mouth of your country’s next leader.

Here’s a partial taxonomy of Gordon Brown’s hand gestures: the karate chop into the palm, the double grip, the titty-tickle, the pull-towards, the inverted squeeze, the precision finger and thumb, the grasp and tug, and its twin variants, the grasp and flip and the grasp and sweep. When Brown talks about community involvement, or the battle of hearts and minds, he draws his hands inwards to a central position on his dark-suited person. When deporting a terrorist or wiping away disease, he removes the object in a full-arm rugby pass, jettisoning it into the outer darkness of the hall. Oddly, the gesture he uses most frequently, today at least, is Blair’s signature thumbs-up barrier, the backs of the hands presented to the audience, their negativity defused by the perky raised digits. As we know from watching Blair and Rory Bremner, the barrier can be extended (when “pushing the envelope” or describing the positive progress of foreign wars), drawn in (to secure borders, or indicate personal involvement), or allowed to remain resolutely static, impregnable to naysayers, Tories and those who fail to meet their performance targets.

Brown’s just getting stuck into a lurid description of today’s souped-up hyper-terrorist, who’s using 20 mobile phones and 30 identities, dreaming of atrocities while moving money around faster than a carousel fraudster, a character whose existential complexity is so mind-bogglingly Matrix-like that it would require 90 days even to establish his identity, let alone find out if he’d done anything, let alone find out if he was about to do anything, when a sinister disembodied voice intones a warning over the PA. “This is an emergency,” it says. “Please leave by the nearest exit.” It sounds as if the war on terror has come to Glasgow. We comply with alacrity. A guy in the row in front of me leaves so quickly that he drops his passport on his chair.

It turns out to be a fire alarm. A lot of people don’t go back in for the deputies debate. I last about halfway through. Peter Hain looks tanned and bug-eyed, like a holidaymaker staring at an oncoming train. Hilary Benn talks in a London drawl about “puddy members”.

Jon Cruddas is humble, Hazel Blears pugnacious. “The liberal left paint me as a hammer of the right,” she says, her eyes blazing as if she relishes being upgraded from a mere mallet or gavel. “But,” she reveals, “I’m not. I’m a nice person.” I slip out and eat a dosa at a south Indian place across the road. “So, you been in there?” asks the waiter, looking at the party photo-op taking place outside the hall. “You’ll be wanting a beer, then.”

Islam and Muslims in the world, London 4 June 2007

No beer here. Strictly orange juice and halal canapés, because it’s time for fence-mending, bridge-building and other such remedial measures. I’m in the grand surroundings of Lancaster House, a massive Georgian mansion coated in marble and gilt, its walls decorated with neoclassical frescoes. The occasion is a conference of global Muslim leaders called by the Cambridge University Interfaith Programme. This morning, Tony Blair opened proceedings by promis- ing £1m for training imams. Tomorrow, David Cameron will be talking about pluralism and Ruth Kelly will attempt, unsuccessfully, not to mention veils and crosses. Even Prince Charles has taped a message, which is nice.

Certain vocal British Muslims are grumbling that they’ve not been invited (they say it’s because of their anti-war views, others say it’s because they’ve already been invited to lots of junkets and some Muslims are still terrorists, which by definition means they haven’t delivered, so what do they expect, subsidised fun for ever?), but no one seems to be letting this dampen their mood. Eastern European waitresses stand to attention with trays as the day’s last plenary finishes. I sit on a chaise longue and watch them come down the stairs, the Grand Mufti of Cairo, the prime minister of Pakistan, the Bishop of London, professors and special advisers and community leaders, sober suits mingling with dishdashes, dashikis, beards abundant, headwear in velvet and astrakhan, cotton prayer caps and silk scarves. There’s an air of bonhomie and conviviality. It has evidently been a good day.

Gordon Brown is hosting this reception. He arrives in a car, sweeps straight up to the podium and delivers a short history lesson, telling a couple of anecdotes about the house and reminding us that it was the venue for talks about the decolonisation of Rhodesia and debt-relief negotiations before the Gleneagles G8 summit.

He claims that “there’s no more important dialogue than the dialogue we’ve had today” (I imagine his use of the first person plural is rhetorical, since he’s only just turned up) and throws in a quick statistic. Apparently this year there will be “250 interfaith or multifaith dialogues, covering the whole country”. This will, apparently, be “50 up on last year”. I have no idea what he means, but it sounds very now, very knowledge economy. Production of dialogue is exceeding the levels set in the five-year plan. We are truly a nation of conference-attendees.

Brown is treated like a rock star. Though he’s impatient to get away, he’s detained by a press of people who want to shake his hand. Great work, he says to them all, you’re doing great work here. People jostle one another, vying for his attention. One elderly man, with the tribal scars and floor-length robe of a cleric from the Sahel belt of West Africa, is almost felled by a stray elbow as he works his way in for a brief squeeze and a word of thanks. He comes away, his face radiant.

“Unions Together”, Labour Party London hustings, 6 June

I’m at Congress House, TUC headquarters, and as the junior Labour press officer who took my call this morning reluctantly revealed, the meeting’s starting “after two”, or about six in the evening, information someone has also made available to the 100 or so Stop the War activists making a noise on the steps. I shouldn’t moan. No one ever got far in the media operation by indulging in loose talk. The guys running these hustings events look slightly shell-shocked. They have every right to their fatigue, since they’ve done another of these things in Newcastle since I saw them in Scotland three days ago. They walk about, buzzing with tension, conferring with one another and receiving messages from the Borg Queen through their headsets. It must be a strange bubble, this road-show. The banners and shouting outside, the sepulchral calm of the lobby. When I make the mistake of suggesting that Brown dodged a question in Glasgow, my interlocutor looks pained, touches his hand to his ear and moves away.

They tend towards a type, these young men. It’s not that I think the organisation lacks diversity; it’s more that it appears to have generated its own subculture. You could be into Nu-Rave, you could be a Young Farmer. Or you could don a red-ribboned security pass and try to get ahead in Gordon Brown’s new Labour. You need a sober suit and a big primary-coloured tie. Polenta is out, pub and match are in, so you’ll need to get the hair and shoes right. No gel, no fancy stylings. Nothing estate-agentish or flash. Good thick soles are a plus.

As a treat, they allow me backstage. Brown gets his own room, with a selection of sandwiches. His rider includes three scented aromatherapy candles, fresh hand towels, tequila and a bowl of M&Ms with the blue ones taken out. All right, it doesn’t. But he’s still better off than the flock of would-be deputies, who share a single room. Elsewhere, the organisers are sifting through a list of audience questions. “Is there anything on Iraq?” someone wonders, anxiously. There isn’t. “Maybe you could raise it?” they ask the chairman, the New Statesman‘s Martin Bright. “We don’t want it to look like we’re stage-managing Iraq out of this.” Another questioner is given the thumbs up because “she’s a black woman”. Welcome to the theatre of inclusivity, the simulacrum of debate.

In the hall, TUC members chew gum and wait for Brown, listening to piped Nineties chill-out music, the kind that’s put out by Ibiza mega-clubs, packaged with a picture of a girl in a bikini. Along the row from me sits a tiny frail-looking old man with an extraordinary profile, a full beard and a round bald head. He looks like the ghost of Keir Hardie.

Brown isn’t as fluent as in Glasgow. I notice he’s recycling his material. There’s the joke about Nixon gladhanding the crowd at the independence celebrations of Ghana:

Nixon: What’s it like to be free?

Man in crowd: How should I know? I’m from Alabama.

There’s the one about Ronald Reagan being prepped for a meeting with Olof Palme, the prime minister of Sweden:

Reagan: Isn’t he a communist?

Aide: No sir, he’s an anti-communist.

Reagan: I don’t care what kind of communist he is . . .

The crowd likes it. They seem to respond, albeit guardedly, to the redemptive story of the 80 million developing-world schoolchildren, to Brown’s gratitude to the state system for his education and to the NHS for saving his sight. At home, he’s offering “a new politics, a new form of democracy . . . the agenda is to find a means to involve and engage”. Abroad he wants a “new covenant between the rich countries and the poor countries”. Later, I look up the phrase. Apart from its biblical origin (Jeremiah 31: 31-4 ) and its echoes within Scottish Protestantism, the “new covenant” was also Bill Clinton’s 1991 campaign theme, a term for his proposed relationship with the American people. I take it as a sign of Brown’s particular flavour of Americanism, his desire to reach out both to Bible-study Bushies and socially minded Democrats.

Young Labour hustings, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 10 June

Helicopters fly overhead. The director of the city’s contemporary art space is excited to be hosting the Chancellor. At the end of the street is a small anti-nuclear protest. Inside, student activists in red T-shirts (optimistic slogan: “Ambitions for Britain”) chat to the deputy leadership candidates. Brown is warmly applauded as he arrives. He’s dressed down (a rare event, apparently). No tie, blue blazer, button-down shirt, chinos, loafers – the uniform of the smart-casual North American executive. The museum director (“our brand is excellence, international excellence”) gives him an old grey-striped Penguin special to sign – J E D Hall’s Labour’s First Year, an account of the Attlee government. “I couldn’t find one of your books in the shops,” he says, perhaps unwisely.

Brown has, of course, got a new book out. Courage: Eight Portraits is a collection of Wikipedia-esque capsule bios of unimpeachably courageous types like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, fleshed out with sentiments such as this:

All these heroes . . . command our highest admiration and gratitude; already the wars and uncertainties of our still young century show these qualities are needed still, and are still there when they are needed.

The book is full of such Hollywood sentences – the high stakes, the feel-good ending. The narratives themselves often end badly – most of Brown’s heroes get assassinated, executed, or spend years in prison. But that’s not the point. The point is his appreciation of the quality (defined here as “action aligned to conviction”) which links them together, and might just link us and him if we get on board the freedom train. It’s notable that (if you discount Mandela’s communism, which isn’t dwelt on) none of his heroes is a socialist. Given the title, a deliberate echo of JFK’s Profiles in Courage, and its inclusion of Bobby Kennedy among the courageous, it’s hard not to see it as another arrow pointing in the direction of the US Democrats as the source of the proposed renewal. In Tom Bower’s hostile biography (reissued and updated for the coronation), Brown is portrayed as suffering failures of nerve at several key moments in his career. Bower’s claim appears to be that Brown’s “big clunking fist” is a substitute for a killer instinct, a viciousness that Blair, for all his presentational lightness, has in spades. Maybe a book associating oneself with the idea of courage is some kind of giveaway of nail-biting weakness.

Brown is interviewed by the TV presenter June Sarpong. Getting down with the kids, he mentions the social networking site MySpace, which he terms “the biggest youth club in the country”, skilfully positioning himself somewhere between Cliff Richard and the skiffle boom in the landscape of contemporary hip. On that site, “Gordon Brown” has the tag “don’t you wish your PM was hot like me” and says that he’d like to meet “a good assassin” to murder the previous occupant of 10 Downing Street. His 1,452 friends include “Margaret Thatcher”, “Lord Levy”, “Alan Partridge” and “Tony Blair”, whose own page has quite a good picture of David Cameron smoking a spliff. Many people appear to be communicating with “Gordon” in the belief that he’s the man standing on stage in front of me, name-dropping Bono. Somewhere, buried in the site, you find “Gordon Brown For Britain” and his 100 friends. I fear the Chancellor may be setting himself up for another Arctic Monkeys moment.

In Oxford, his speech is almost entirely given over to global warming and international development. He tells a story about meeting a 12-year-old Kenyan Aids orphan and rails against people who believe in the impossibility of social change. He sees the debt relief agreement as his defining achievement, at least for this young audience. The large numbers of young people who bought Make Poverty History wristbands are a ready-made constituency for his brand of global feel-good rhetoric, and at the end of his presentation they respond enthusiastically. Leaving aside doubts about whether the Gleneagles promises will be kept, or whether they’re meaningful at all without a revolution in trade, it’s evident Brown is proud of them. If there’s a dream animating the mysterious space behind his sea-island cotton shirt, international agreements on debt and climate are part of it.

An American journalist I met remarked that it’s hard to think of another world leader who would end a hustings speech on the topic of debt relief. That should give us pause. So is Brown an internationalist? Or is he just a technocrat, committed simply to more efficient management in the interests of the existing global elite? Can his apparently sincere desire for reform be delivered by the politics he espouses? Is he merely captivated by the fading image of the Kennedys and Camelot? None of these questions will be answered this afternoon, but I have the pleasure of watching him field others – on the al-Yamamah arms deal (“I have no knowledge of such things”), nurses’ pay and detention without trial. It seems Young Labour is rather less docile than the rest of the party.

Carers’ Week reception, 11 Downing Street, 13 June

Some 150 carers and care workers are enjoying the Chancellor’s hospitality in Downing Street. Outside, it’s all automatic weapons and crash barriers and high forest-green screens to shield against rocket attack. Inside, Brown is smiling at Sam Brereton, who was born with Down’s syndrome and is cared for by his mother and his father, a charity director who’s just given a speech. Sam is unfazed, and has happily interrupted Brown’s peroration on his personal commitment to carers and his recognition that the government needs to do more.

Brown’s smile is a wry, lopsided thing, quite unlike the toothy grin he dispenses while working a room. It’s a rare flash of unmediated emotion, perhaps the only one I’ve seen in all the hours of watching him. He snaps out of it, making jokes about the Treasury’s parsimony, pointing at the oak floor (“we can’t afford a carpet”) and the large Frank Auerbach abstract on the wall in front of him (“that used to be a Gainsborough”). Soon enough he’s off to another engagement. Sam, however, is chatting like a political pro. He introduces himself and I ask what he said to the next prime minister. “I told him he seemed like a nice man.” So what did Brown say? He shrugs. “Oh, you know. Hello Sam. Things like that.” Then he gives me a flash of his Manchester United tie.

Watching Brown on TV, 24 June

There they are on TV, the divorced couple. Blair’s world tour has taken him to see the Pope, the tycoon Bernard Arnault and Arnold Schwarzenegger, an accelerating spiral of cele-brity nonsense which is about to catapult him into the post-political stratosphere. Meanwhile on earth, Brown is striding down a station platform, a spring in his step, perhaps the result of a poll which shows him ahead of Cameron in popularity. In a BBC interview he sounds like our new CEO. Later, he embraces Blair on the podium and tells us his Labour Party “must have a soul”. He bows his head and announces that he is “ready to serve”. Let’s hope we can meet his targets.

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