The current battle of the "Bs", Blair and Brown, which is slated by the media as coming to a head today with Brown’s pre-budget assessment, brings to mind an apparently unrelated incident which happened a long time ago, in my less than illustrious career.
At the time, I worked for British Rail, in the busiest station in the country, outside the main line terminals – East Croydon. In one idle moment (and there weren’t many) I went up to the announcer’s box, overlooking the six platforms, to talk to my friend who worked there. That day, he had a treat for me.
To set the scene, you need to imagine platforms 5 and 6, set back-to-back at one side of the station. At certain times of the day, a particular train could arrive on either of the platforms, depending on whether there were any delays. Intending passengers, therefore, had to rely on the announcer to tell them on which platform their train was going to arrive.
These platforms were also at the end of a down grade, so the train - one of those old-fashioned electric slam-doors – would glide into the selected platform, almost silently, which set the scene for the fun.
As you might expect, the announcer got early warning of the platform on which trains would arrive and, on that day, one was was due on 6. Loudly and clearly he announced: "The next train for.... is due on platform 5. The obedient passengers – over a thousand of them - all stood up and shuffled to platform 5, awaiting their transportation.
Meanwhile, the train glided into platform 6 and stoped behind the expectant passengers. Then after the train had been stationery for some moments, my friend announced: "The train for …. is now standing at platform 6". How we enjoyed watching all those people turn round and rush for the right platform.
But this taught me several lessons – firstly, never blindly trust any information, even if it comes from an apparently reliable source and, secondly, when someone points you one direction, always look behind you.
That tends to be my attitude to this never-ending Blair-Brown soap opera, especially with the media which would have us believe that the two are locked in mortal combat over the leadership of the Labour Party.
But the particular issue to hand is an apparently new development – which is not actually new. Brown is pushing "Britishness" to the apparent fury of those thinking about how to win on the Constitution, which has elicited some excitable suggestions from certain quarters that Brown will not support the "yes" campaign in a referendum, thus rendering it practically unwinnable.
Taking a lesson from my station announcer, however, whenever someone seems very keen to point you in one direction, always look behind you. For those who believe that Brown’s "Britishness" agenda betrays some kind on innate Euroscepticism, perhaps they should take a look at the Labour Party website.
Well, you can try to look at the site, but automatically you get redirected to another page, headed "Britain is working". You then get asked to "Tell us what makes you proud of Britain". If that is not a "Britishness" agenda, then I’ll eat my hat. Gordie’s little agenda is mainstream New Labour, to the core.
Oddly enough, Sunday Telegraph deputy editor Matthew d’Ancona – a man who I do not usually rate - picked it up in his column, the relevant part of which is worth quoting in full:
The binding theme in the Brown strategy will be one that has animated him in the past: that of "Britishness". The Chancellor has been reading widely on this theme in recent months, and has been particularly impressed by the writings of Stanley Baldwin - the Tory leader who, in 1924, celebrated "the sounds of England, the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning" and the "love of justice, love of truth, and the broad humanity that are so characteristic of English people".
That would come as no surprise to us. In late September, we wrote of our suspicions, stating that Mr Brown is not our friend. "One is ever conscious", we added, "of the role of James Callaghan in the 1975 referendum who, as the token Eurosceptic in Wilson’s cabinet, made a last-minute Damascene conversion to the cause, pulling many doubters into the "yes" camp.
Substitute "British" for "English", and you approach Mr Brown's developing concept of national identity, rooted in values, rather than institutions. The grit in this is that the Chancellor believes Britain cannot resolve the question of its relations with Europe until it first finds a new definition of national self-confidence. For which, read: after the divisions of the Blair years, only I
can bring unity to the country. Trust me, I'm Gordon.
This may sound like a direct challenge to the Prime Minister, and indeed it is. But, paradoxically, it is also an opportunity for Mr Blair. The Chancellor's present preoccupation with Britishness is the road-sign towards a possible agreement between the two politicians over the EU constitution, and the referendum expected in early 2006. Put crudely: Mr Blair could do his usual turn in a campaign on "our European destiny", while Mr Brown, speaking as the
Eurosceptic who had been convinced, urged the public to vote "Yes" as a declaration of unthreatened national pride. European history and national self-interest would converge in their joint rhetoric.
It would be a formidable campaign, fought by the two dominant politicians of their time. It would also be a remarkable climax to the Blair era. Together, he and Brown might just pull it off: a third electoral triumph, followed by a referendum victory - the latter against the bookies' odds and every opinion poll.
That could well the role cast for Brown in what is, in fact, an elaborate charade. And that goes to show that you should never trust any information, even if it comes from an apparently reliable source – even, or perhaps especially, this Blog.