So here’s the most important thing about Gordon Brown’s ‘bigot’ gaffe: not that he is two-faced (who isn’t, sometimes?), or that he is ‘out-of-touch’ (granted), or that he has a bit of a temper (also true); no, the most important insight into the character of the Prime Minister is that he somehow translated a reasonably successful encounter with an ordinary voter into, in his words, a ‘disaster’ – which, of course, is how it turned out but not in the way he meant.
It’s so inexplicable that whilst some people have noted the irony, most are too baffled to speculate as to what this might tell us about the man. So, here goes: firstly, Gordon’s glass is considerably less than half empty. In fact, I suspect that this incident is a visible expression of a kind of bunker mentality that takes hold when a human being is so beleaguered that they begin to disbelieve the evidence of their own experience. Like a dog that has been kicked so much that it can barely believe that life can involve anything other than a kicking, Gordon Brown has withdrawn into a numbed expectation that everything and everyone is hostile to him.
Add to this nearly three decades of contending with and adapting to politics as a media spectacle, and a glimmer of what must have been going through his mind begins to flicker before us. What he perhaps saw was not Gillian Duffy, but a simulacrum of Sharon Storer (remember her?) haranguing Tony Blair back in 2001. The real event withdraws into a hall of mirrors, in which it is merely a replaying of that, and other, earlier events that are framed by the media under the category ‘politician gets tongue lashing from real person’.
Such is his expectation that this is all he can reasonably expect, the rather polite encounter with Mrs Duffy becomes scrambled into a carnival of cringe-worthy images that spools through his mind’s eye: the rolling news replaying the ‘dressing down’ endlessly; the next morning’s headlines; The Thick of It.
And so he goes into autopilot, dealing outwardly with the necessities, seething inwardly that such a situation should have been allowed to arise (control freaks hate being out of control, and he clearly is one). He does not even notice that he is doing well. He is distracted, and he hears something that resembles ‘there’s too many bloody Eastern European immigrants round here, what yer gonna do about it?’
Perhaps, then, it is not surprising he thought Mrs Duffy was a bigot. I would, if I thought that was what she was saying. But the real problem was that he wasn’t listening – a political crime if ever there was one. And the reason he wasn’t listening was that he’d lost all confidence in himself, and in the world around him.