Kevin Toolis: Gordon Brown’s image problem

The fall of a great man and how we choose our leaders is the theme of a new play by Kevin Toolis

Love him or loathe him, Gordon Brown was our greatest failure as prime minister in the last 200 years.

Even three years after his fall, the reasons why this superbly capable, moral man failed so badly in the office of Prime Minister are of burning political relevance as both the independence referendum and the next UK general election loom.

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Brown’s failure was a failure of leadership. Despite his vast economic expertise, he could not persuade the British people that their future was brighter under his command.

Ultimately, Scottish independence too will also be decided not by scrutiny of a mass of conflicting economic arguments but on faith in the leadership of Alex Salmond.

Who we choose to rule over us, and what we expect from the leader, is a perennial question and is as old as human history itself.

For the last three years, and after a lifetime of political reporting across the globe, I started investigating how the concept of the modern leader is created and constructed. And why Gordon Brown, Tory leaders Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague, Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot all failed as potential prime ministers.

The result is a play The Confessions of Gordon Brown that will be staged at the Pleasance in August at the Festival. The Confessions is a broad work of political satire as well as a careful study of all of the necessary elements, and hidden arts, of political leadership.

There will never be a shortage of people who believe they have the right to rule others. But possessing the right attributes to be a leader is a rare combination both of arbitrary physical traits and extraordinary psychological skills.

I began by interviewing as many of Brown’s close leadership circle who would talk to me including Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander, his “gatekeeper” Sue Nye, spin-doctor Damian McBride, other politicians, pollsters, press officers, and innumerable Labour Party figures.

Whether we believe in them or not, our modern political leaders Labour, SNP or Tory, are media creations composited into being by PR teams, pollsters, legions of “special advisers”, image consultants, elocution experts, and, possibly most importantly, hairdressers.

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These digital media creations are impossible human beings: all-seeing, all-knowing, telegenic, fertile, wise, possessed of the common touch, generous, wryly sharp tongued, and supremely confident.

Somewhere beneath these screens of power is a man, or woman, who has doubts and fears like the rest of us, but none of these weaknesses are ever shown to the people.

Some things about leadership never change.

Amongst the very earliest surviving texts of human civilisation, recorded in cuneiform on a clay tablet, is the praise song of the Sumerian ruler Ur Nammu, who ruled the city of Urim from 2112-2094 BC in Mesopotamia.

I place my foot on the neck of evil doers – who will be caught like snakes. The watercourse of my city is full of fish and the carp grow fat. For me Kingship came down from heaven.’

Even today, the basic tenets of Ur-Nammu’s praise song are readily recognisable in most modern political manifestos. The future will be brighter. The coming harvest will be bountiful. Evil doers will be punished. My rule is the natural order of things.

Policies, manifestos, and party conferences come and go but a leader only really sells one precious commodity – hope.

Like President Obama’s classic poster, a successful leader sells himself as the embodiment that the world is going to be a better, safer, more certain place under his rule.

Even in modern democracies we elect not a man but an idealised ruler who we believe is superior to ourselves, wiser, more hard-working, more astute and more fit to govern. We are choosing a king.

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Some of our other key attributes of leadership are purely physical and are again reflections of ancient psychological preferences. The “Big Man” is big. Leaders are simply taller, like Obama or Clinton, even Osama Bin Laden.

The last American president to be below average height was William McKinley who was elected in 1897. If you are five foot seven, regardless of your political ambition you are never going to be prime minister.

There is another golden but arbitrary rule that also applies – the people will not vote for baldies.

Just as every TV anchorman sports flowing locks regardless of his age, so too do the people require the leader to have hair. Again this is probably to do with some deep-seated psychological perception of fertility but it proved fatal for Hague and Duncan Smith who failed miserably against a hirsute Tony Blair.

Proven fertility as with the birth of Leo Blair in 2000 when Blair was in Downing Street and the birth of Florence Cameron in 2010 are all positive reinforcements of the same idealised ruler image.

Having height, hair, and getting your teeth sorted out, are all necessary attributes of leadership but they are not sufficient.

The really tricky bit is the public perception of who you are as judged by your physical appearance, your voice, your skill as a public speaker in countless TV interviews, in the House of Commons and in a wide range of public appearances.

Modern politics is more of a science than our leaders would like us to believe and considerable sums are spent on private polling, focus-group sessions and market testing, all designed to help shape the public perception of the leadership brand on the TV.

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Brown was an avid fan of focus groups and often commissioned his pollsters Deborah Mattinson and head of policy Spencer Livermore to conduct two sessions a week in a long-running image building campaign codenamed “Project Volvo”.

Each focus group consisting of eight men or eight women was asked a series of test questions – what sort of animal is Gordon Brown or what is his other job? – as means teasing out answers that could be fed back to Downing Street to help spin his image. The personal ratings of Brown and his rivals, Blair and Cameron where often probed by asking seemingly bland questions like whether or not they would be invited to a family barbecue.

The answers – he was always a bear and a headmaster – shaped the early days of premiership in Downing Street and particularly the key motif – change – of his speeches.

But carefully tweaking of his public image never overcame Brown’s generally negative ratings compared to Blair, particularly in marginal constituencies in southern England. The southern electorate were never keen on inviting a dodgy Scots bloke with a jowly neck and a fixed grin round to their summer barbecue. And nothing he could do could really change that. It was just human prejudice.

If anything, the focus groups always confirmed the obvious – that Blair sold hope and leadership far better than Gordon Brown ever could.

Image is not everything but it counts for a lot. In office, Brown struggled with himself and the pace of decision making required of the office of British Prime Minister. The workload crushed him but he was unable to delegate. Ultimately his character, his fateful indecisiveness, corroded his powers as leader and he was beset by endless rebellions and reversals.

We are still living in the aftermath of the fall of this thrawn king whose demise has effectively destroyed the Scottish Labour Party and thus helped precipitate the possible creation of an independent Scotland.

Whatever his ratings in his own privately commissioned focus groups, David Cameron presides over an economically lacklustre government that is simply adrift in the world economy.

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Nor does Brown’s successor Ed Miliband appear to be succeeding as the embodiment of an alternative hope for the British people.

The Confessions of Gordon Brown is also about that old story – the fall of a great man.

Kings do matter. The play’s purpose is a reflection for the audience on the real nature of the leaders who rule us over us, and the frailties both within them and us in choosing our roles as leader and the led. Who we choose as leader remains a crucial question for all of us.

• The Confessions of Gordon Brown by Kevin Toolis will play at the Pleasance, from August 2-26 at 1:45pm or @GordonConfesses on twitter

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