“What a man is on his knees, that he is and nothing more.” (Robert Murray McCheyne)*
The Toothpaste Test: what comes out when the pressure is on? It’s easy to put on a facade when everything is fine, but there’s nothing like a tight squeeze for revealing what we’re really like:
- Gordon Brown has displayed a spectacular level of resilience (or desperation?). Both James Purnell and Caroline Flint may have thought they were delivering the ‘Geoffrey Howe moment’, but Brown has clung on. Most people would have ended up in the Priory after the sort of week he’s had. You have to admit his toughness, even if you’d rather he wasn’t there. I rather admire his dutiful refusal to give up and walk away.
- Caroline Flint’s resignation letter sadly comes across as a petulant response to not being promoted in the reshuffle, rather than a principled refusal to be ‘window dressing’. It reflects badly both on Brown, but also on Ms Flint herself.
- Brown has also displayed, again, his misjudgment of character. On one day Brown talks about his ‘Presbyterian conscience’, then the next he appoints Alan Sugar to a top government role. In one week, the PM has gone from Simon Cowell to Alan Sugar: you wonder if he put together his Cabinet by browsing the Radio Times.
As the public clamours for honest MPs in the wake of the expenses scandal, Sugar is a man who awarded the Apprentice crown last year to a man who was found out for lying in his CV. His public persona is a mixture of grouchiness and greed - you might argue that this is only a persona, but frankly I’m sick and tired of people who put on an act for the cameras, but behave differently in private. Dizzy also notes that Sugar has a bit of history with Gordon Brown.
For an observer, its certainly been an exciting few days, but I’m glad Brown is staying. Why? Because his rivals haven’t yet had the Toothpaste Test. We don’t really know what David Cameron is like under pressure. The Tories have floated to the top of the polls without, as yet, serious scrutiny of their policies, their character, or their principles. Cameron’s calls for an election have been irresponsible - how can we possibly have a sensible election in the midst of the current mess? What kind of mandate would it give to whoever won?
Britain’s Got Talent reminded us that the spotlight can reveal our frailties, as well as our gifts (and whilst we’re on the subject, any show that hospitalises its contestants needs to be taken off air, no matter how popular it is). Brown used to have a reputation for rising to challenges - remember summer 2007? In a years time his response to the economic crisis may be judged more kindly too, as we remember that the Conservatives failed in their Opposition duty to blow the whistle on a debt-fuelled boom.
The media seems to enjoy bringing people to its knees - Tony Blair once famously called them a pack of feral beasts. There’s a fine line to tread between vigorous scrutiny, and respecting the human dignity of those you are calling to account. Brown needs to be given the chance to stand up and get on with his job.
Meanwhile I wouldn’t want to see Cameron brought to his knees, but I still don’t believe we’ve really seen him tested, and that worries me.
*The full quote is “What a man is on his knees before God, that he is and nothing more.” McCheyne was a missionary, but I’m not sure if he was a Presbyterian. By way of contrast, I'm currently reading a biography of the missionary Hudson Taylor, and one thing which stands out is his constancy of character, rooted in prayer and dependence on God.
This is a cross-post from 'Touching Base', a weekly column hosted at the Wardman Wire.