Here I am on the NR cruise, isolated on the river Douro somewhere between Portugal and Spain, and this is not a position in which to follow political events in Britain. I have felt nothing but forebodings since the Conservatives failed to win a majority. It has seemed clear that David Cameron would abandon some principles to become prime minister, and the question was which principles, how far he would go to accommodate the Liberal Democrats, and whether this wouldn’t lead to irreparable damage to the Conservatives. Whether he has abandoned principles remains to be seen.
Of course it is a relief to be rid of Gordon Brown. He was a disastrous Prime Minister. It is hard to think of anything that he did right. After plotting for years against his colleague Tony Blair, he finally ousted him. How he wanted the job, how he and his spin-doctors presented him as someone whose whole career was directed towards this end! At last the right man was supposed to be in the right place. The Labour Party did not then elect him but had a coronation. Things went wrong thereafter. He immediately flunked a general election which he almost certainly would have won, in which case none of this downfall would have occurred and he’d still have a couple of years in office. Virtually all decisions Brown took were soon revealed to be mistaken. Worse, the man’s character was exposed. Evidently he was weak, defending himself as weak men do by being a bully. Nastiness in a prime minister makes for the disloyalty of subordinates and general inefficiency.
In Greek tragedy a favourite theme consists of the character who badly wants something, only to destroy himself when he obtains what he has wanted. Self-destruction comes from hubris, from the character’s mistaken belief that he has qualities, indeed a destiny, that in reality he does not have. As we NR cruisers enjoyed the Douro landscape I couldn’t help reflecting how perfectly Brown exemplifies this notion of tragedy. I felt what the spectator of a Greek tragedy is supposed to feel, at once delighted that nemesis has overtaken a flawed character, while also being sorry that he has to pay so humiliatingly for his faults. And naturally the famous judgement of Tacitus on the Emperor Galba also came to mind – “capax imperii nisi imperasset.” My English translation of the idiomatic Latin will have to do, “He seemed capable of ruling until he actually came to rule.”