Broonland – Two Views
Verso have just published Chris Harvie’s Broonland (available at Word Power Books) described as: ‘an essential anatomy of New Labour’s bankrupt policies and a caustic portrait of a decade that went from boom to bust.’ Last month we published Harvie’s commentary The Sense of an Ending and noted Gerry Hassan’s critical review: ‘The Missed Opportunity of Broonland’
I know that Gerry Hassan is writing a book about Brown’s political thought, so I’d expect him to be picking up on dates and verbatim quotes. But I think Harvie throughout is trying to be more intellectually ambitious than simply skewering Brown as a backslider from the beginning. So much of the book is a close theoretical argument with many of Brown’s decisions about industrial, social and financial policy, from Harvie’s familiar (though enduringly valuable) “German stakeholder capitalism/social market” perspective – so I really don’t agree with Gerry that “our tour guide takes us through the ruins of this decaying kingdom, and does not offer us any directions”. Harvie also does a thorough job in calling his old academic-historian colleague to account on his own terms, particuarly on how Brown misreads Scottish and British history to justify his accomodation to neo-liberalism. Christopher Harvie, like that other crazy-headed Christopher Grieve, does write a lot (and volcancally), and thus understandably has a tendency to recycle his themes. But even though I’m a long-term reader of Harvie, I decided to sit down with Broonland and enjoy his compressed yet wide-ranging voice, rather than take it for granted. Not the ultimate book on Brown, but I think a powerful reading of his legacy, and critical in the most conceptually engaged way.
Broonland: the Last Days of Gordon Brown, Christopher Harvie (Verso, £8.99) reviewed by Pat Kane:
As the adepts of Photoshop endlessly elide the pores of party leader portraits, and the creaking, shrieking merry-go-round of the forthcoming General Election picks up speed, the citizens deserve nothing less than robust political biography with their cornflakes. This is exactly what Christopher Harvie’s Broonland provides, in his capacious critique of this most complex of modern British politicians – whose “last days” may not, even yet, be near.
We open with a comradely vignette of the early Gordon Brown, which only throws into relief the gothic labyrinth of his later career. In Feburary 1979, as joint pamphleteers in support of Scottish devolution, Harvie and Brown are battering towards the Glasgow-Edinburgh train – when Brown’s ancient briefcase bursts open and cascades scholarly papers across the platform. “An epiphany of sorts”, writes Harvie, “symbolising the sheer uncontainability of the man’s information and ambition – ‘an’ him no’ yet thirty!'” From this warm memory of Brown as “idealistic, generous and anarchic”, Harvie sets out to chart his shift from “socialist credulity to capitalist credulity”.
Harvie’s idiosyncratic, demanding style of public writing – where theoretical haikus, historical filigree and saloon-bar one-liners jostle for prominence (often in the same sentence) – has in the past sometimes lost sight of its chosen subject. But in Broonland, his biographical connection with Brown – both of them Open University lecturers in the 70s, both peers of Robin Cook, John Smith and Donald Dewar in the 80s – turns Harvie into something like a polymathic Jiminy Cricket, perfectly perched at the PM’s shoulder.
The narrative takes us from early days and the Granita pact with Blair, through the jamborees of ‘financial innovation’ in London (and Edinburgh), to Brown’s strenuous crisis management of the last eighteen months. Harvie bristles with objections and queries to Brown’s theories and practice that (you suspect) the good professor would love to put to him over a peaty bottle of malt, the cap irretrievably crushed.
As Harvie might say, in his position as professor of British Studies at Tubingen University, he mostly wants to have a historikerstreit – a historian’s quarrel – with his old academic colleague. How could such a self-conscious son of Kirkcaldy, the birthplace of Adam Smith, get the great economist so wrong? How could Brown’s mid-oughties boast of “light-touch” financial regulation forget Smith’s admonition against the “luxury and corruption” that naturally accompanied “conspiracies of merchants”?
Brown was a biographer of the flawed Labour leader James Maxton. Harvie intriguingly suggests that Maxton’s distrust of big money, which veered into anti-Semitism, must have shaped Brown’s embrace of the City. The Third Way progressive has to make his peace with cosmopolitan, turbo-charged capital markets, in order to benefit from their monetising autism. Brown trudged regularly to Rupert Murdoch’s corporate lovefests, and even brought Alan Greenspan to lecture at Kirkcaldy Town Hall.
Though as Harvie says, perhaps Smith’s successor Adam Ferguson – the first analyst of how civil society could break down into in-groups and out-groups – would have been a better guide to the trading tribes of the City of London, as they projected totemic power via near-magical (certainly opaque) rituals of money-making.
Yet Harvie possesses a map to the full hinterland of Gordon Brown. In late 2009, he watches the Prime Minister deliver a note-perfect eulogy to NUM leader Lawrence Daly, “alert to the loyalties of the retired miners and their families” seated in the pews of Dunfermline Abbey. Harvie grants “the conviction of the man” – that his legacy would be “a great city state founded on efficient trade, which it would use to ameliorate international divisions”.
Yet this strategy is unravelled by the rise of the BRICS and the EU as global economic players, torpedoeing any idea of even a relatively autonomous British polity. And, more sinisterly by what Harvie calls “illegalism” – meaning when the stakeholders and regulators are chased out of the bazaar, and capital flows get flooded with money from all striations of criminality, from hard-core vice to soft-core creative accounting.
Harvie is actually an SNP MSP in Brown’s own Kirkcaldy back yard. Twenty-odd years in the engineers’ republic of Baden-Wuttemberg in Germany turned him away from British big-nation sclerosis towards Celtic regional reformism. So Harvie has a predictable disdain for Brown’s lumbering attempts to construct a “new collectivity” out of Britishness.
But the professor’s regret is more that the Brown who wrote The Red Paper on Scotland in the 70s, and Where There is Greed (an anti-Thatcherite paen to hi-tech industry) in the early 90s, could preside over the final hollowing-out of British manufacturing in the oughties. Harvie’s German experience tells him that skillfully making stuff is the foundation for civic health and solidarity, for which parading around in the tatters of the Union Jack is no substitute. Harvie draws a veil over the grotesque ideological cul-de-sac this led to – Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” – which is perhaps just as well.
Broonland brilliantly demonstrates the enduring truth that the most interesting politician is always a great bunch of people. Gordon Brown, the minister’s son who believed he could harness financial savagery in a light socialist muzzle, already outstrips any of those characters in the political fictions of C.P. Snow or Eric Ambler which Harvie regularly quotes. The book ends beautifully by citing Louis MacNeice: “None of our hearts are pure, we always have mixed motives,/Are self-deceivers, but the worst of all Deceits is to murmur/’Lord, I am not worthy’/And, lying easy, turn your face to the wall.”
Brown hardly regarded himself as unworthy. But as swarms of invigorated Toryboys mass glibly on the plains, are we sure which face he turned to which wall?
* You can watch to George Galloway’s interview with Chris Harvie on PressTV here.