The Pain of Gordon Brown
Sometimes one feels sorry for the press. Not often, mind you. But when it is confronted with a human tragedy such as the death this week of Jennifer Jane, the 10-day-old daughter of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and his wife, Sarah, there is little it can usefully do but record the melancholy fact. Yet the press is somehow expected to match the public’s sympathy for the bereaved couple with a proportionate outpouring of words, even though tears rather than words are the only appropriate reaction. There are well-established conventions for press coverage of this kind of tragedy, such as the dead child having “lost her battle for life” and her parents now needing to “rebuild their shattered lives”. It was also frequently stated of the Browns that their lives would “change for ever” after the loss of their first child. It is perhaps best not to question the accuracy of such reporting, even though it is hard to imagine a child so young battling for her life (the doctors presumably were) and nobody actually knows how Mr. and Mrs. Brown are feeling after the event. It may be confidently assumed that they are miserable, but that is all. Can one be certain that their lives “will change for ever”, whatever precisely that may mean? But, anyway, it doesn’t really matter.
In this instance, however, there was one statement repeated throughout the British press that perhaps merits a moment of scrutiny. This was the claim, stated everywhere as a fact, that the torment of the 50-year-old Chancellor and his wife would be made more painful because they would have to mourn under the glare of publicity. According to Lesley Garner in the London Evening Standard, the pain could “only be worse for this private and discreet couple for being so publicly proclaimed, suffered and endured”. The Guardian put it this way in an editorial: “The ordeal would be bad enough for people who enjoyed living their lives in public, but for two people who have always rightly guarded their privacy, such public suffering is worse still. In these circumstances, even the sympathy is probably hard to bear.”
This is not what Tony Blair thinks. Standing at the air base at Bagram at the side of a somewhat embarrassed-looking Hamid Karzai, the interim Prime Minister of Afghanistan, welcoming his first Western leader since Sept. 11, Blair said of his Chancellor and his wife: “I hope it is of some comfort that to them that I know everyone in our country will be thinking of them at this time and keeping them in their prayers.” The press has perpetrated no intrusion into the privacy of the Browns. It is allowing them to grieve as privately as they wish. All it has done is to make the whole country aware of their bereavement and thereby generate a wave of sympathy for them. Does this make their pain harder or easier to bear?
Writing in The Times, Anthony Howard, a former editor of the New Statesman, said that not since Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy lost their third child, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, who died in 1963 after 52 hours of life, “has any famous couple had to face sharing their grief with the public in quite the same way that Gordon and Sarah Brown are now being required to do”. But he suggested that they might, at least initially, “find themselves buoyed up by the great surges of public sympathy that will flow in their direction”. Howard also noted that “the House of Commons can be a great source of solace for politicians struck by tragedy”, recalling that the former Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, had been “quite explicit in explaining just how much the support and sympathy of his colleagues in all parties had meant to him” after his first wife was killed in a car accident in 1970. But, as he also pointed out, “that kind of reaction will always rest on the individual”. Let us hope that the Browns also find comfort in such things. But for now, we cannot know.
Flirting With the Queen
Anti-monarchists are surprised when monarchists attack the Queen and the Royal Family. They assume that they have either lost their minds or miraculously found their reason. But they miss the point. Monarchists consider it a duty to criticize how the Queen leads her life and to scrutinise the failings of her family, which is indisputably a total disaster. One of the great rewards of loyalty to the throne is that the loyalist can permit himself the freedom to mock the Royal Family as it moves from one fiasco to another. Only republicans tend to refrain from personal criticism, since the object of their dislike is not the Queen herself, whose personal failings seem neither greater nor lesser than many non-royals, but the very idea of monarchy.
The appearance of a massive three-part portrait of Elizabeth II in the Daily Telegraph, the most royalist of all British newspapers, is therefore not, as the Daily Mirror says, “treachery” or, to quote the Daily Mail, the “latest bout of inter-palace troublemaking”. Graham Turner’s 30,000-word article is another of those huge and essentially rather fond appreciations of the Queen, even if it is also unflattering. The Queen’s right to rule is never challenged, whatever Turner may say about Her Majesty’s obsession with corgis, her preference for all animals over all humans, the uselessness of her self-pitying children, and the bizarre manner in which she welcomed Gough Whitlam, then Australia’s prime minister, at Buckingham Palace in 1973.
As Turner tells the story, Whitlam, who was thought by some British officials to be planning to withdraw Australia from the Commonwealth and establish an independent republic, brought the Queen a present. It was, one of Turner sources says, “a huge sheepskin rug in an absolutely enormous soft leather suitcase”. “There was a lot of unconfined mirth after dinner that night, and I think we must have had a fair amount to drink,” the source goes on. “When the sheepskin rug had been spread on the floor of the Great Drawing Room, the Queen said: ‘It’s so big, I could get into it’, and proceeded to do so. … She lay on that rug in front of him, stroked it and said how lovely it was. It was an arrant use of sexuality. I was absolutely flabbergasted. Afterwards, Whitlam said to me: ‘Well, if the Queen’s like that, it’s all right by me!’ “
Lying on a rug pretending to be a Hollywood temptress may not be a familiar display of 20th-century royal power (although her early-modern forebears would probably not have found the gesture especially surprising), but now that we know the lengths the Queen has gone to impress a guest, it doesn’t make Elizabeth II inherently less regal. Like all the jokes about her failings and those of her children, the story helps nourish the fantasy of every sworn monarchist: that the Queen and successors will go on for ever and ever.
The Sunday Express this week published a supplement on “Britain’s Top 300 Wealthiest People”. This is in direct imitation of the “Rich List” that the Sunday Times has been publishing for years—itself originally inspired by the Fortune 500 in the United States. Newspaper readers seem to have an unquenchable curiosity about the rich, so this may be reason enough for the Sunday Express’ venture. But it could also be motivated by an urge to set the record straight with regard to some of the findings of the Sunday Times.For example, Richard Desmond, the owner of Express Newspapers, was ranked last year by the Sunday Times “Rich List”in joint 105th position, with a fortune estimated at £300 million (about $432 million). He has risen in the Sunday Express to eighth position and described as being worth £1.2 billion ($1.7 billion), which is some improvement.
It makes him not only very much richer than the Queen, whom the Sunday Express ranks 45th with £450 million ($648 million), but also puts him absolutely streets ahead of the young Lord Rothermere, who is in 85th place with £300 million ($432 million). Rothermere, who inherited the Daily Mail from his father a couple of years ago, is described as having had “a year he will want to forget”, while Desmond had “a stunning year”, almost doubling his fortune by clever investment and by “restructuring”—i.e., cutting lots of staff at—his newspapers. It would surely be quite wrong to attribute this disparity in any way to the competition between them—in which the Daily Mail and its sister Sunday paper are miles ahead of the Express newspapers, the weakest of the British tabloids—or, indeed, to any feud between Desmond and Rothermere.
But Philip Beresford, who has been compiling the Sunday Times “Rich List” for the past 14 years, strongly disputes the Sunday Express estimates of their respective wealth. He thinks that Rothermere is still worth at least £1 billion ($1.44 billion) and Desmond around £300 million ($432 million). We will see what he says when the next Sunday Times “Rich List” is published in April. Beresford is also dubious about the seventh place, one ahead of Desmond, accorded by the Sunday Express to Desmond’s friend Mohammed Fayed, the owner of Harrods. The Sunday Times last year valued Fayed at £750 million ($1 billion) and put him in 32nd position on its “Rich List”. The Sunday Express says he’s worth £1.3 billion ($1.87 billion) and that “everything the Egyptian tycoon touches turns to gold”. Its also makes the startling claim that Punch magazine, the venerable publication Fayed bought in the mid-1990s and has since mercilessly vulgarised, “is now close to becoming a commercial success”. Its circulation is still not audited by ABC, the official monitor of newspaper and magazine sales. But even with a sale of 42,000, as claimed by Punch, it would be hard to see how it could make a profit.
Why Desmond and Fayed are friends is not clear. Some attribute it to their shared status as outsiders in the eyes of the British establishment, and both of them are notoriously loud-mouthed. But they certainly engage in a lot of mutual congratulation. Fayed, who claims in his regular Punch column, ” The Thoughts of Chairman Mo“, to have helped bring Tony Blair to power by exposing sleaze and corruption in the last Tory government (which he did partly by giving Conservative MPs brown envelopes full of cash as an incentive to ask particular questions of the Government in the House of Commons), surprised everyone last year by describing Desmond in print as the only London newspaper proprietor to be showing “real concern about what is happening to ordinary people in Britain”. Their relationship seems almost like love.
Let’s Get Pivotal
Tony Blair has unveiled his vision of the United Kingdom and its future foreign policy—a vision less about how Britons should see themselves, perhaps, and more about how the rest of the world should view them. Addressing a meeting of the Confederation of Indian Industry in Bangalore, India, on Saturday, the prime minister said the United Kingdom will be a “ pivotal partner” on the world stage (pivotal to what, you may ask). “I believe we have found a modern foreign policy role,” Blair said. “We do not have an empire. … We are not a superpower but we do have a role and in playing it properly we benefit Britain and the wider world.”
Saturday’s Timesquestioned Blair’s “assertion … that foreign and domestic policy are now ‘part of the same thing’. … The claim suggests, moreover, that Mr. Blair is beginning to view his international meanderings as at least part-fulfilment of his domestic duties, a belief his British electorate would be entitled to regard as both irritating and crass.” An editorial in its sister paper, The Sunday Times, (you’ll need to register to read this article) was more enthusiastic. “We are right to be engaged pragmatically overseas,” the paper said. “The country’s future as the world’s fourth largest economy lies precisely in being ‘involved and constructive’ in every continent.”
Within hours of delivering his speech, however, the leader of the pivotal nation received a public rebuke. A member of the Indian Cabinet, Pramod Mahajan, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, attacked the British Prime Minister for poking about in another country’s affairs. As The Observerreported, “a leading member of the Indian Cabinet made clear that New Delhi is deeply irritated by [Blair’s] pledge to act as a ‘calming influence’ over Kashmir. On the eve of the prime minister’s talks with his Indian counterpart, Blair was told in unequivocal terms that India needs no lectures from its former colonial rulers on the need for restraint.”
Undeterred, Blair went about his calming and his pivoting. He met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of India on Sunday to discuss the Kashmiri crisis before meeting Pakistan’s President Musharraf on Monday. According to The Times, Blair told the Indian Prime Minister “that the Kashmir dispute had to be settled between India and Pakistan. … ‘There has got to be the clearest possible action. We welcome some of the action taken by Pakistan over the past few days. There is no doubt what needs to happen. There must be a complete rejection of the type of terrorist act carried out on the parliament.’ “
How Britain will pivot with its European partners now that the euro has been successfully launchedis a question taken up by all the papers. The Daily Telegraph, that most Euro-sceptic of publications (although The Observer’s Peter Prestonargues that almost all the papers are congenitally anti-euro), reportson the results of an opinion poll conducted after the Jan. 1 launch of the currency: “73 per cent of people oppose the single currency compared to 21 per cent who believe that Britain should join. The margin of more than three to one is one of the widest of any survey since the currency was first proposed.” The same poll also reveals that “some 79 per cent, against 14 per cent, think that Britain will ultimately join the euro,” which The DailyTelegraph says illustrates the burgeoning cynicism of the British public towards the new currency, although why this illustrates cynicism (rather than, say, resignation or a willingness to change one’s mind) is not explained.
The Sunday Timesand The Observerbelieve that most Britons are now more enthusiastic about joining the euro, if not immediately. Reporting on another opinion poll, The Sunday Times says: “The poll shows for the first time that an overall majority of people (52 %) would either join the euro immediately (18 %) or when economic conditions are right (34 %). Only 25 % are hardline opponents of entry, saying Britain should never join.”
Doubts about the euro may be dissipating, and news relayed by the Sunday Timesthat Briton is apparently a more intelligent nation than it was 6o years ago, may be welcome. But fears about social issues, especially crime, are on the rise. “The Government’s anti-crime strategy appears to be coming apart at the seams,” says The Sunday Times. Recent crime statistics, as well as several well-publicised murders, violent assaults and burglaries, worry politicians. Oliver Letwin, the Conservative Party’s spokesman on Home Affairs, who was burgled by a man who rang his door bell at five in morning asking if he could use the lavatory—come in, was Letwin’s bizarre reply (his wife noticed certain objects were missing a few hours later)—tells The Daily Telegraphthat crime is a social problem.
That observation may not be news to everyone, but for Conservatives the admission amounts to new thinking. In the 1980s and 1990s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major rejected emphasis on the social causes of crime. “Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less,” Major famously said in 1993. Yet Letwin says the social roots of crime should no longer be overlooked. “There is a terrible image of a conveyor belt to crime: the child growing up in a dysfunctional family, who becomes a problem at school, who joins a gang, gets on to drugs … eventually engages in serious crime and goes to prison. If we are to do something about the appalling malaise in society, we cannot just deal with the end of the conveyor belt, we have to get back to the early stage.”
For The Observer, the “early stage” must include an examination of alcohol consumption. Some 25 per cent of 11-year-old boys have an alcoholic drink once a week, the paper reports, which prompts the paper’s leader writersto comment: “The dangers of cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana are all too highly publicised, but alcohol is still behind 40 percent of serious violent crime and three quarters of assaults. Screening of casualty patients has shown that two thirds of those treated for assault were intoxicated at the time of their injury. Deaths from cirrhosis have risen more than sevenfold in the past three decades.”
The pivotal nation must now look for a new spiritual leader. Over the weekend, Dr. George Carey, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, announced he would retire later in the year after an 11-year administration. Those believed to be in running to become Carey’s successor include the Most Rev. Richard Chartres, Archbishop of Wales, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Rochester, and the Right Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, who became the first British diocesan bishop from an ethnic background (he was born in Karachi in 1950). The Telegraphdescribes Nazir-Ali as “an expert on Islam and … chairman of the committee considering the consecration of women bishops,” while The Independentsays that while Nazir-Ali’s appointment might “be favoured by Anglicans in Africa and Asia … [he] has been criticised by liberals for his views on homosexuality and marriage”.
The Timessuggests that Nazir-Ali is unlikely to succeed Carey because he would “likely face snobbery and racism from other Church leaders.” Whether Nazir-Ali becomes the next Archbishop of Canterbury remains to be seen, but that he is in the running at all seems to illustrate that this new pivotal nation is in, well, full pivot.
You can e-mail the editors of Slate UK at Editors_slateuk@hotmail.com.