Goodbye charisma, hello new politics
Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton represent a new era in which ability is more important than image
Sunday August 5, 2007
People easily 'get' the Blair-Clinton relationship. They were both modernising, charismatic leaders of parties that had to be brought closer to the mainstream. They were both great communicators. They were both also policy wonks who loved nothing more than complicated policy decisions that they could then connect to people's lives. They were in many ways political soulmates, sharing many values and much analysis of what needed to be done in the world.The Blair-Bush relationship takes longer to explain. Part of it is about the reality and pragmatism of modern statesmanship. It was their job to get on. The US-UK relationship is a real one, with important economic, diplomatic and cultural ramifications. Despite his administration's more unilateralist approach, President Bush understood the need for allies in meeting some of the post-9/11 challenges. He not only valued, but sought to nurture the relationship with Tony Blair.
Then, beyond pragmatism, there is personality and the truth is that Mr Blair and President Bush really did get on. I offend and upset many of my left-leaning, Observer-reading friends when I say this, but the President is more intelligent, more personable, more likable than the silly 'moron' caricature. He is someone who is plain-speaking, yet also open to the arguments of others, two qualities Mr Blair always looked for in other leaders.
It is also the case that the forging of relationships tends to be faster and deeper amid times of challenge and, for both, the decision to go to war in Iraq was difficult and defining.
I saw some of the President's senior advisers last week and it is clear Gordon Brown's first visit to the US as Prime Minister went well from the White House perspective. As for the public, his profile is inevitably much lower than that of Mr Blair, who came to US attention through a series of major events - Labour's first landslide election win, Princess Diana's death, the Northern Ireland peace agreement, war in Kosovo, the aftermath of 9/11 (which took him to near-heroic status in the eyes of many Americans), war in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Interestingly, while Bush seems to attract near-vilification in the US over Iraq, the tone of criticism of Mr Blair is muted. That succession of events made him the best-known and most-liked foreign leader.
Gordon Brown is in the position of devising more traditional diplomatic relationships, as are the relatively new leaders of France and Germany. In both his press conference with Bush and even more in his speech to the United Nations, he played to his strengths, coming over as a serious, substantial figure focused on the big challenges facing the world and determined to use his power to meet them in partnership with other leaders.
I am surprised anyone is surprised that Mr Brown has started well. The Conservatives have been so mesmerised by the TB-GB prism covering UK politics that they underestimated the extent to which life would change when TB moved on. He will not be a Thatcher-style backseat driver. The Tories trapped themselves in one perspective without planning for the next. It is what happens when you don't know the difference between strategy and tactics. (boenk!)
They are in a mess partly of Labour's making but partly of their own. Labour's because the stable and orderly transition happened, because Mr Blair's departure saw huge focus on the last 10 years and the better Britain that emerged, and because the new Prime Minister has been able to represent both continuity and change, a fantastic strategic position to be in.
Shadow home secretary David Davis was alone in the Tory high command in not underestimating Mr Brown. At the last election, 'vote Blair, get Brown' was designed to signal that Mr Brown would be a liability. So were David Cameron's efforts to present himself as the true heir to Blair. Both indicate that they were trapped by the TB-GB prism. They didn't realise that once TB went, so would the prism. As others have pointed out, Gordon doesn't have a Gordon to worry about. GB without TB is in a strong position, provided he is competent. And he is, always has been. Competent, serious, substantial. That's what people seem to want from him.
That leads me, finally, back to US politics. Just as people are surprised - wrongly - at how well Prime Minister Brown is doing, so they are surprised at how well Hillary Clinton is doing in her race to become the second President Clinton. She is now the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination and where once the conventional wisdom was that she was too polarising and controversial a figure to be seen as President, the idea of her making the White House is now very real and more widely accepted as a genuine possibility than even a few months ago.
She won respect for the way she endured and survived the tough times when her husband was President. She is a respected Senator, seen as experienced and competent. She may not be the campaigning maestro that is Bill Clinton, but her media skills have improved markedly with experience and time. She has a real understanding of policy and is tough in debate.
Like Mr Brown, she is serious, substantial, unflashy. Perhaps we are entering the era of post-charismatic politics. Gordon Brown got on fine with President Bush because it is part of his job to do so. But perhaps the next really 'special relationship' will be between Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton after the next US and UK elections. Two serious heavyweights emerging from the shadows of two more charismatic giants of the modern political age. Blair-Clinton was a formidable double act. Brown-Clinton could be, too. Strength will out, as Messrs Obama and Cameron are finding.
· Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair's spokesman and strategist from 1994 to 2003. His book, The Blair Years, is published by Hutchinson