Brown speech analysis: A fight to the finish

With his career on the line, a grimly determined Gordon Brown has sent British politics spiralling in freefall towards fundamental – and ancient – faultlines.

By Alex Stevenson

For so long the debate was about progressive one-upmanship, a nitty-gritty bickering over means and ends between two broadly similar leading parties. The global economic crisis changed all that, sending Britain back to a politics many thought had disappeared for good. Now Brown has sent us spinning backwards further still.

An ancient politics has been invoked by the prime minister who, at last, has realised he has no other option but to fight and fight hard. The biggest theme of his speech is that of the majority versus the minority; of what’s best for the people against the vested interests of the elites. We can forget debates about the nitty-gritty of progressive one-upmanship. Brown’s speech changes the game. The Labour government, accused of not having the “will to live” by its chancellor before this week, may not give up the ghost after all.

Recession and the expenses scandal were combined to provide the fuel Brown needed to launch this campaign. There was a potential pitfall here: that because he was the man presiding over the economy for the last decade the problems with current-day Britain were his fault.

No, Brown pointed out. The Britain of irresponsible debt and cynical expenses claims is not the country he identifies with. His kind of Britain, he explained, was one which “works best not by reckless risk-taking but by effort, by merit and by hard work” David Cameron’s narrative of ‘broken Britain’ is about the entire country failing, in large part thanks to the Labour government. Brown’s is more positive; it points the finger at a small minority, shrugging off responsibility in the process.

Voters will decide whether they will buy this, but at least Brown’s speech has a basic coherency going to the heart of society – and does so with a grim determination not seen in British politics for years.

If those on middle and low incomes are Brown’s people, it was clear who are not. Everything can be blamed on the minority, ruining the virtuous prime minister’s plans for increasing fairness and prosperity. The recession was the bankers’ fault. Greedy MPs are to blame for the expenses scandal.

The finger-pointing at the troublesome minority extends perfectly to attacks on the Conservatives. For Brown, the next election must be fought on whether that minority – never associated with himself or Labour – will be allowed to retake power. Their “pessimism and austerity” is bad enough in Brown’s book. Far worse is the way in which the Conservatives talk of change. “Is that change that will benefit my family, or only a privileged few?”

By contrast, the “hard-working majority” were championed and courted in equal measure. They cropped up time and time again in the speech. They are the ones to benefit from Labour’s commitment to ongoing investment in public services. And after Brown revealed his JFK-esque ambition to “beat cancer in this generation”, he showed how changes in the NHS could benefit “not just the few who can pay but the mainstream majority”.

Don’t underestimate the sweep of this powerful speech. His smiles on finishing were mere show. Underneath it, the prime minister is preparing for the fight of his political life. He showed quite how bare-knuckle he intends to make it today.