Brown publishes memoirs: not many read

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There are several explanations why Mr James Naughtie, the Scottish broadcaster, should have called Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport a c**t.  Mr Naughtie may have spoken for those who have met the gentleman in question and find the description apt.  Or he might have been betraying a degree of Scottish chippiness, an innate Caledonian dislike of Tories, sauteed in the bitter mortification that comes with the freezing of the BBC licence fee.  Let us dismiss as too prosaic the possibility that it was a slip of the tongue; a man who manages to convert the innocent words Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt into something simultaneously Spooneristic and rhyming-slang is, in modern sociological terms, trying to tell us somethnig.

And yet.  I have my own theory. All Monday morning and way past lunchtime the Twittersphere was giggling with glee at Mr Naughtie’s unfortunate utterance. My brief survey of the leading blogs found that only MumsNet and the Church of England declined to carry the relevant link to YouTube.

Now it doesn’t take much to distract a population that is, by definition, obsessed by trivia, but when I see the digital herd flocking in one direction or another, I wonder who is pulling them there, and why.  And I can only conclude that the whole thing was got up as a device to divert attention from the real news of the day, which is that Gordon Brown has started to publish his memoirs. Did you know that? You see, it works.

Why they should bother, however, is anybody’s guess.  Mr Brown’s writing may well be the only extant example of text in English that Julian Assange would not contemplate releasing on Wikileaks. The effect is deadly.

Even on the Guardian site, home of the organisation that has paid money for Mr Brown’s oeuvre, they do not seem keen to advertise the fact. You have to scroll down the page before you come to the former prime minister’s happy face, reproduced at approximately the size of a postage stamp, and advertising a link to an extract from his book called, beguilingly, “book extract”.  It is an interesting photograph too: half of the former prime minister’s face is a pale lit white,  while the other half lies interred in darkness. This may be just how the photographer arranged it, or, more probably, is just how it always is.  The former prime minister looks not unlike the moon.  But if there is life there, there is little evidence of it from his book.

Mr Brown we know, has eschewed the opportunity to write a memoir setting down his rise to power – how he was manufactured in a Clydeside shipyard and spent the first 12 years of his life in the bible cupboard at the local kirk – or the machinations he deployed to stay there. Damian MacBride and Edward Balls are absent from these pages.

Instead, the old gloom is spending his book-writing days much as he spent his time in office: lecturing us in anesthetic detail about the global economy and how he thinks it should work. This comes out as neither history nor literature, still less entertainment. It is therapy.

“The crises of economic policy in the past century teach us that the conventional wisdom of the day easily become the misjudgement of history” begins the first extract, and from that startling opening the prose quickly multiplies like a virus, all too soon achieving the written equivalent of Ann Widdecombe’s knickers: maximum impenetrability for minimum reward. Mr Brown has mastered the page-turner all right. But an editor or somebody should have told him that the idea was for the page to be read before it gets turned.

Merely from the first slab reproduced in the Guardian it is possible to wrench away a dozen or more sentences that illustrate Mr Brown’s stunning prose. But I particularly relished the moment when the author – get this – accuses the European Central Bank of “talking obscurely” when they say that government indebtedness had “opened up a number of hazardous contagion channels and adverse feedback loops between financial systems and public finances”.  One senses here the apprentice recognising the true master at work. And this from a man whose idea of an adverse feedback loop was to throw a photocopier at his diary secretary.

Nudge or Fudge?

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Walking down into the West End from Marylebone Tuesday morning, I passed through the university district where little platoons of protestors were mustering for their weekly assault on Whitehall.  As the snowflakes danced around their soggy placards and the vuvuzelas sounded through the sleet, I thought how splendid it was that these young people should be out and about on such a  bleak winter’s day.  Especially since, according to the papers, they were planning to play “cat and mouse” with the police, an energetic game of chase through the streets where the winners get to yell police brutality while being slammed up against an armoured van while the losers experience kettling, an act of state-sponsored frottage, not dissimilar to travelling by tube. (There is, incidentally, in my opinion, nothing wrong with kettling, so long as the police resist the temptation of calling the kettle black which would show that institutional racism is still alive and well in the Met.)

All of this zestful exercise would have been noted with approval by Mr Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, who was tucked up warm inside the House of Commons at the time, telling its incumbents about his exciting plans for public health.  MPs by and large are not much moved by public health. They are not exactly in favour of public ill-health, but would rather leave the whole antiseptic subject of “wellness” to tight-lipped puritans with an epidemiological bent and a well-developed hatred of the human race, or at least that 99.9% of it fatter than themselves. Public health fascists, as they are fondly denounced, especially on the Conservative benches, survive on a diet of bran and theory so thin that it would lead to a bag of saline solution other than for the obvious difficulty of not being able to tell which one is the drip.

There are exceptions to the rule and Mr Lansley, unfortunately, is one of them.  Giving the job of health secretary to a politician with an enthusiasm for public health is not just a statistical improbability but a dangerous combination, inviting comparisons with letting a women’s romantic fiction club loose with a box of chocolates.  Mr Lansley let fly with his initiatives while MPs – that small percentage that is who hadn’t seen the health secretary’s statement as the moment to head off to the canteen in search of an iced bun – reacted with a mixture of indifference and scorn.

Mr Lansley is not much loved on his own benches, his obvious enthusiasm for being health secretary marking him down (rather as it did Virginia Bottomley in her time) as someone who doesn’t quite fit with the Tory club.  They do not think that his ambitious reforms for the National Health Service will work – holding, with irrefutable logic to the tenet that, so far as the NHS is concerned, nothing else does – and they certainly do not want to be lectured by him about the importance of regular exercise and occasional testicular examination (or self-examination rather, though so far as I am aware, there is no medical reason not to do it for a friend).

The good news is that Mr Lansley has decided to hand over responsibility for public health to local government, which is as sure a way as many of ensuring that we shall hear no more about it. Local councils, as we all know, carry out a range of important responsibilities in the community, including emptying the dustbins, deploying social workers and complaining about central government’s parsimony with the rate support grant.  It is only the last of these that they have ever become any good at, and I doubt whether, charged with the energising new duty of keeping us all lithe and chipper, they will discover any hidden aptitudes for the task.  We shall see, but Conservative MPs, rather than accusing the hapless health secretary of, in the words of the libertarian Philip Davies, being “wedded to the nanny state”, should recognise that, in the central conceit of his public health white paper, that is handing the whole shooting match over to the town hall, Mr Lansley has, quite brilliantly installed the virus that will lead to its destruction.

Andrew Lansley may have few friends on the Conservative benches, but he occupies his high office by virtue of being an astute receptor of the signals sent out by his political bosses. Thus he will be very familiar with the idea of “nudge”, an American theory that briefly kept Steve Hilton happy in the creativity creche one afternoon before he found a big shiny box labelled “big society”. The basic idea is that the State, rather than frogmarching us towards its vision of utopia, should gently coax us there, much as a trail of choc-drops leads a hound to its dinner.

At least one of the tight-lipped fraternity thinks that nudge must not take the place of  policy.  “There is a danger that the nudge will become a fudge”,  said Tim Lang, mustering all the authority of such a statement that comes with being professor of food policy at the City University in London.  At the mention of fudge, however, most Tory MPs  would wake up. At last a health policy they could relate to.