Monday, May 12, 2008

It could be worse, Gordon

It would be superfluous for me to observe that Gordon Brown is not terribly popular. Every other day seemingly brings another story charting his continued descent from trough to pit to slough of despond to nadir; he is less popular the Neville Chamberlain after the invasion of Norway, his party openly debates his removal, he is at an 'all-time' low - and it's only likely to get worse. Once a prime minister becomes an object of pity, he is finished.

I do not intend to join the pack. Instead, in the, admittedly, remote contingency anyone from Downing Street is reading this, let me offer the following words of comfort and support. Gordon is a long-way from being the most unpopular man in English history, as a few examples will easily demonstrate.

Admittedly the art of polling was not so developed a few centuries ago, so we can't make exact parallels. However, even the worst aspects of Brown's government seem light in comparison with the outright tyranny some of these characters managed. However, note well that these are people who became hated because of their continued encroachment upon the rights and liberties of the people (so stop doing things like trying to bring in ID cards, extend detention without trial and end the flirtation with insane authoritarian bullying such as the suggestion that children whose parents are idiots should be punished by being kicked out of school.)

The Marquis of Bute: Gordon is not even the most unpopular Scotsman to become Prime Minister. (See, already things are looking better). I'm focusing on England here (there are plenty of disastrous Scottish leaders), partly because, like Brown, Bute was unpopular partly on account of anti-Scottish sentiment. However, this prejudice was dwarfed by the man's personal failings.

Bute's unpopularity can more precisely be attributed to the fact that he had been imposed on the people of England (by George III rather than the Labour party) without their consent, that his administration was characterised by financial incompetence (including new taxes, the implications of which had not been properly thought through, including - a small, but telling detail - unpopular taxes on alcohol.) Given all this, it's little surprise Bute only lasted a year in the job before the constant personal attacks forced him out of the job.

The hostility towards Bute was best expressed by John Wilkes in the North Briton. My analogy falls down somewhat in that there are no Wilkes-like figures in contemporary politics (there are some similarities with Ken Livingston, I suppose; Wilkes was something of a scoundrel too and held his supporters in contempt) but that's beside the point here. Bute still provides a cautionary tale against high-handed, arbitrary and capricious government and perceived contempt for the views of the electorate.

King John: He spent years plotting and scheming to undermine his predecessor, a charismatic leader with a propensity for causing trouble in the Middle East. When he finally achieved the top job he turned out to be a total disaster. His capricious nature, constant meddling in people's affairs, his high-handed treatment of his underlings and his unpleasant personality alienated pretty much everyone. John made a fool of himself on the continent, England was placed under a papal interdict (effectively casting the land out of the Christian communion), he carelessly lost vast amounts of gold and at the time of his death he had effectively been deposed (the barons had offered the throne to the French heir). His attempts to undermine people's civil rights led, of course, to Magna Carta. (I don't need to labour the point about civil liberties any further, do I?)

There have been other disastrous rulers, some of whom lost their thrones and some of whom made violent ends - Edward II, Richard II and Charles I. However, there was a residual deference surrounding the monarch (still is, to be honest) and more often that not the popular venom was reserved for unpopular ministers. The last even-less-popular-than-Gordon is drawn from their ranks.

Hugh Despenser the Younger:
these historical comparisons should not be take too far, of course. Whatever Brown's flaws, he is never going to be as vile, nor as hated, as Despenser. Apart from his sidelines in piracy and torture (there is a story that he imprisoned one noble woman and repeatedly broke her limbs until she was drive insane), he became despised through his association with Edward II and its attendant maladministration, corruption and ruthlessness. He eventually received his comeuppance and was hanged drawn and quartered. His end makes gruesome, yet instructive reading.

He was stripped naked, and biblical verses denouncing arrogance and evil were written on his skin. He was then hanged from a gallows 50 ft (15 m) high, but cut down before he could choke to death, and was tied to a ladder, in full view of the crowd. The executioner climbed up beside him, and sliced off his penis and testicles which were then burnt before him, while he was still alive and conscious. [Actually, accounts vary on this. Some say they were shoved into his mouth as a gag.] Subsequently, the executioner plunged his knife into his abdomen, and slowly pulled out, and cut out, his entrails and heart, which were likewise burnt before the ecstatic crowd. Just before he died, it is recorded that he let out a "low inhuman howl," much to the delight and merriment of the spectators. Finally, his corpse was beheaded, and his body cut into four pieces, and his head was mounted on the gates of London.

Note the delight of the watching crowd. The reason I dwell on this is that I very much fear that Gordon Brown will undergo a political version of this protracted and very public agony - all to the delight of the baying mob.

It would be kinder for Brown, and much better for the country and the Labour party, if he was instead given a quick and ruthless exit: the political equivalent of Edward II's (reputed) exit, in fact. Get the pokers heated up in time for the party conference.



Blogger Quink said...

Spencer Compton was pretty rubbish too. And, like Brown, he raised taxes on spirits...

12:42 pm  
Blogger bill said...

You mean Wilmington? A good example of the dangers of following a long-serving prime minister (cf also Roseberry, Eden and Major)

12:46 pm  

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