I remember watching him from the gallery above. Through the thick protective glass between the gallery and floor (installed after someone threw a paint balloon to the floor below a few years before) I cringed as Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a lackluster response during that oh-so-British of institutions, Prime Minister's Questions. In them the leader of the British Government subjects him or herself every week to questions from the opposing parties and to the rest of the elected members of parliament. Normally they're equal amounts interrogation and displays of stunning wit among the different members.
Brown was being grilled by Conservative leader David Cameron about knife violence in central London, who was using a rather large amount of dry humor to get his point across. Brown, the leader of the Labour party which has held power for the past 17 years, responded with an off-putting amount of seriousness - as if Cameron could not ever possibly know the real answers to the situation. When he sat down it was with a certain 'hmmph' which said 'I'm right, you're wrong and get over it.'
Sitting in the gallery I was equal parts excited political junkie, enjoying the direct exchange of political wills almost never seen here in the States, and subjective observer. As part of a college study abroad program I was serving as a staff assistant to a junior minister in Brown's Government.
This was two years ago. The situation for Brown then was simply abysmal. After a year in power his approval ratings were nowhere near acceptable for a political leader. Back then it didn't seem like anyone thought he would make it through the next month or two as party leader, let alone to the next election. Since then he has made something of comeback, losing his Labour party's majority in the House of Commons, but nowhere nearly as badly as pundits predicted he would then. It seems he just doesn't have the political savvy to act as Prime Minister.
Yet, today's announcement of Brown's resignation as Labour party leader saddens me. I think it has something to do with that off-putting seriousness I saw in him during that short spat with Cameron on the Commons floor.
Here in the States we're used to more fluff than substance in our politicians. We get laws with long, important sounding names with words that make clever acronyms like 'Patriot.' We have a hard time accessing our leaders because there's levels of staff to go through first. In Britain, most members of Parliament occupy small offices the size of closets. Many answer their own phones.
In Britain, the fluff is definitely there. But there's also a rather large amount of substance. In his resignation speech today, Brown mentioned something too few American leaders seriously entertain: the national interest. Amid all the furor over his leadership style and his policies, Brown's seriousness is refreshing in its determination and care.
Who knows what his ouster will mean in the long term, but maybe Brown's impact will be his continued, principled stand for what he believes is in the national interest. If only some of our politicians would be willing to make such a dangerous stand.
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