Failed terror bombings give a new leader a chance to show his stuff
IT'S ALL A MATTER OF EXECUTION
Failed terror bombings give a new leader a chance to show his stuff
The would-be murderers who park Mercedes full of propane tanks in crowded theatre districts are not normally solicitous about elected politicians’ schedules. And yet if nothing else worked about the bombing attempts in London and Glasgow at the beginning of July, there was something freakishly elegant about their timing. The odd cabal of medical doctors who planned two failed attacks and then, in a fit of desperation, drove a third flaming car into Glasgow’s airport, gave Gordon Brown a chance to demonstrate he is a new kind of British prime minister. A dark man for dark times.
Surely, it seemed, Brown could offer no new surprises. He was co-architect, with Tony Blair, of “New Labour” in the 1990s, transforming the party from a labour-union megaphone to a pragmatic contender for long-term government. He was Blair’s finance minister for every day of their decade in power after the 1997 elections. The dour Scot’s ambition for Blair’s job was no secret, even if, unlike
Canada’s Paul Martin, Brown was always quick to hush his more reckless and fullthroated supporters on the backbench.
Yet for most of this year, the British Conservatives, under their chipper new leader David Cameron, have held a steady poll lead over Labour. Cameron seemed more like Blair than Brown did. “Unless he can reveal a different side to his personality, dour, stiff, slightly odd Mr. Brown will struggle to reach those aspiring middle-class voters whom Mr. Blair could still just about deliver in 2005,” a columnist for The Economist wrote in February.
So onjune 27, Brown rode to Buckingham Palace in the back of a red Vauxhall sedan and left—nearly an hour later; whatever had Queen Elizabeth found to discuss with him?— in the prime minister’s dark bulletproof Jaguar. He delivered a brief speech at Number 10, built around the unromantic motto of his high school in the Scottish town of Kirkcaldy,
“I will try my utmost.” The cabinet he unveiled the next day was fairly deft—diverse, full of young talent, careful to include diehard supporters of the Blair regime. But early reaetions were conditioned by the expectation that Brown would lack spark. In the Guardian, a newspaper normally sympathetic to
Labour, Simon Hoggart called it a “government of all the bores.”
But less than 48 hours after Brown took office, police found a Mercedes packed with gas and nails outside the Tiger Tiger club in bustling Haymarket. A second was found hours later, only blocks away. The next day, a Saturday, two men drove a flaming Jeep, also rigged to blow, into Glasgow Airport.
The plot became frankly bizarre when the bombers turned out to be medical doctors. The apparent ringleader was Kafeel Ahmed, a 27-year-old Indian national who lay near death at mid-week in Glasgow Royal Hospital with third-degree burns over most of his body. His brother Sabeel, 26, was one of the suspects arrested in Liverpool for the London bombing attempts. The two were unassuming young men from a smart suburb of Bangalore, India, before joining the Tablighi Jamaat missionary group three years ago. Tablighi Jamaat, a deeply conservative Islamic movement, proclaims its non-violence but has been linked to other converts to radical Islamism, including John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban.”
Even as Britons’ jittery nerves calmed, they were stuck with a riddle: how could affluent and well-educated professionals fall into a life whose culmination was supposed to be mass slaughter?
As the bizarre plot unfolded, suddenly Britain could use some boring. Brown had wanted to be less frequently seen in public than Blair, but on that first weekend he made three public statements in as many days. “I know that the British people will stand together, united,
resolute and strong,” he said in his first remark. Then, on the weekend, he filled out the sentiment in a televised interview. “We will not yield, we will not be intimidated and we will not allow anyone to undermine our British way of life.” Brown’s steady hand gave Labour a quick polling lead over the Cameron Tories. “God pity the Conservatives,” Janet Dailey wrote in the Telegraph. “The last thing that
the electorate will welcome now is the opportunity to be governed by prancing fops.” Patrick Dunleavy, who teaches public policy at the London School of Economics, told Maclean’s there is more to Brown’s early success than a timely outbreak of shoddy terrorism. “I think he’s trying to make a break from Tony Blair—but perhaps also to make a link back to the first Blair-Brown government,” he said. In that first mandate, from 1997 to 2001, New Labour was “spectacularly successful” by focusing on constitutional change—that is, a change to the institutions under Britain’s unwritten constitution—and by reaching outside Labour to attract personalities and voters who hadn’t traditionally backed the party.
GORDON BROWN HAS SO NAILED DOWN HIS PROGRESSIVE CREDENTIALS HE CAN AFFORD TO SOUND OLD-FASHIONED
Seen this way, New Labour wasn’t a style or a manner—it was a formula for government and electoral politics, one that Blair lost and Brown has sought to regain, Dunleavy said.
Other commentators have remarked on Brown’s repeated use of the phrase “our British way of life.” Political analyst Fraser Nelson wrote that it was “the phrase that David Cameron would never dare utter,” because the Tories are terrified of being pegged as anti-immigrant or old-fashioned. But Brown has so thoroughly nailed down his progressive credentials that he can afford to sound old-fashioned now and then—reassuringly so. And as a Scot, his loyal Britishness earns him bonus points, much as Quebec francophones who join Canada’s federal Liberals are often well-regarded outside Quebec. Which is what led The Spectator magazine to write that “if Blair was the British Clinton, then (in his cultural positioning at least) Mr. Brown might be the Scottish Sarkozy.” As with France’s new President Nicolas Sarkozy, Brown hopes a hefty shot of nationalism will help his reform medicine go down with middle-class voters, who make up the bulk of the electorate in both countries.
Still, as the would-be terrorist physicians amply demonstrated, events have a way of confounding careful image-making. In the wake of the London and Glasgow attacks, Ronald Noble, the secretary general of Interpol, unleashed a rare blast of public criticism against British security efforts. “We have the passport numbers, fingerprints and photos of more than 11,000 suspected terrorists on our database,” Noble said. “But the U.K. does not check it against immigrants coming into the country or foreign nationals it has arrested.” Interpol said the U.K. makes 50 checks a month of the database; France makes 700,000. (By contrast, Noble has frequently praised the RCMP’s efforts to protect Canadians from terrorism.)
Brown’s ministers, including Britain’s firstever female home secretary, Jacqui Smith, dismissed Noble’s criticisms even as they scrambled to fill the information gaps he described. Brown had found a tone and a tempo to reassure Britons about his fitness for the job. His next challenge would be to find policies to keep them safe, if that is even possible anymore. M
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.