We have a dislikeable man with no interpersonal skills in a coastal town in Suffolk. Although thought by some to be skilled at his business, his biggest achievement was thrown away when the climate turned against him. He is particularly unpleasant to junior staff. Everything he touches turns bad and his attempts to describe his vision for the future turn into repetitious rants which no-one listens to or believes. He is hated by almost everyone as much for his character and demeanour as for his inability to handle events. After his latest disaster, even his few friends advise him to push off and sink out of sight. His departure is barely noticed save that the sun comes out as soon as he is gone.
So much for Gordon Brown. This is also, of course, the plot of Peter Grimes, and it is a happy chance which took me to see Peter Grimes whilst Gordon Brown was sulking in Southwold, a few miles along the coast from the Borough (Aldborough) where Grimes is set.
Following Boris Johnson’s lead (he recently had to explain to a Labour MP that Mercutio was a character in a play called Romeo & Juliet by a chap called William Shakespeare) I should explain that Peter Grimes is an opera – a play whose narrative is carried by words set to music – by an English composer called Benjamin Britten. Not all Labour MPs are that thick, of course, but NuLab’s legacy of cultural deprivation means that one has to explain almost everything not to do with football, sex or fast food.
The plotting is not exact. Grimes’s gathering skills lay with fish not tax revenue but in throwing away his biggest catch when the weather turned he differs from Brown only in that Brown had already wasted his (that is, our) money when the economic storms hit.
It is not clear who the apprentices are in this parallel New Labour world. The common element between them in the opera is that they die whilst in Grimes’ charge. So much has died in Brown’s watch – honesty and decency, educational standards, under-equipped soldiers, the Labour Party itself – and the dead apprentices could represent all of them. “Whatever you put into Gordon Brown’s care will die before your eyes”, is perhaps the message.
There are parallels in the way the two men react to adverse events. They have in common that they were already much disliked by those around them before the events which open the story. In Grimes’s case, the general view is that Grimes was responsible for the long-drawn-out death of his companion on his otherwise successful voyage. Much the same was true of the slow political death of Tony Blair. Although the inquest finds that the death was accidental, Grimes cries out that suspicions will always remain that he was to blame, thus showing considerably more self-awareness than Brown did.
Both men claim to be aware that they must change before they will be accepted, but neither has any plan or policy which might achieve it. Grimes bangs on about doing well so that Ellen Orford will appreciate his true worth, but when she tries to get close to him he hits her round the face. Gordon Brown similarly drones on about getting the message across to the voters but then hits them with a 10 pence tax hike, increased car tax and so on. The crucial difference between them is that Grimes at least acknowledges the need for real change whilst Brown thinks merely that that his failure is one of communication.
Disaster strikes. Grimes loses his second apprentice and Brown loses a safe Labour seat with a 22% shift. The advice given to Grimes by his only friend is to take his boat out to sea and sink it. I would guess that Brown’s colleagues are giving him much the same advice.
There is one last parallel. During much of the opera a violent storm rages but the day on which Grimes’s boat is seen sinking dawns calms and sunny. On the day when Gordon Brown finally ousted Tony Blair it started to rain, and it rained solidly for weeks, culminating in last July’s floods. The mere presence of Gordon Brown has brought us disaster after disaster. If, like me, you believe that fate rewards and punishes you for the way you live your life, then Gordon Brown deserves all he gets – I am far from being a fan of Tony Blair, but what Brown is going through now is a fair return for his disloyal conduct during the Blair years and for his dishonesty in economic matters.
Apart from his dislikeable personality, Peter Grimes seems in some sense to be a canker in the Borough, whose presence brings public trouble – the storm – as well as his private difficulties. Brown is an unlucky charm for his party and for the country. The sooner he takes his boat out to sea and sinks it, the better for all of us.