I don’t have a very good memory for poetry, but there is one line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth which has been playing on my mind in the days since the inconclusive General Election:
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other. . . . (Act 1, scene 7, 25-28)
Gordon Brown is leaving office (and, if reports are accurate, politics) amid a mixture of respect and scorn. He craved the top job for so long and yet has only been able to hold on to it for three years. It seems that his dark resentment against Tony Blair blinded him to the limitations of his own abilities. Rather than being content to fulfil his potential in the roles that were suitable for his gifts, his ambition compelled him to manoeuvre his way into a post for which he has always appeared ill-equipped.
Therein lies the tragedy of a good man whose ambition o’erleaped itself and led to a sad departure. Gordon Brown is one of the most eloquently ethical politicians I have ever heard. Intelligent, informed and articulate, he was on his best ground when addressing socio-economic realities through a framework of powerful moral (even biblical) ideals. Those who heard his impassioned appeal to the bishops of the Lambeth Conference at Lambeth Palace in July 2008 will forget the prophetic urgency of his speech – urging the bishops to take seriously their commitment to hold governments to account in relation to the Millenium Development Goals. He was honest not only about the political contraints on politicians, but also about the moral force of bishops (and others, of course) who should keep reminding governments of the commitments they had made.
The best line of the post-election game has been the one about us moving on from the Lib-Lab Pact of the 1970s to the ConDemNation of today. The shenanigans of recent days will soon resolve into some sort of government for next few months. But I suspect that one day the history books will be kinder to Gordon Brown than are the media this week. His policies (under Blair and subsequently) brought many people out of poverty, gave parents a better start and, amid some of the not-so-great elements, treated international aid seriously. He had his weaknesses – but he also had his strengths and these should be recognised.
Perhaps for the first time, he might now get a family life before offering his huge skills and experience to the world in a different capacity. In the meantime, we will no doubt be entertained by other politicians whose ambition is no less than Brown’s. It won’t be an edifying spectacle.