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A lesson in democracy

By MIKE JOHNSON [email protected]

Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.

This is the tale of two world leaders. One is newly-elected, self-assured and highly popular – the other was not elected, and appears to be racked with self-doubt and is less popular in his home country than the leader of either of his main rival political parties. Do you need any more clues? I don’t think so.

The first is, of course, Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States – the other is Gordon Brown, successor to the highly successful but not always adored Tony Blair and, at the time of writing, Prime Minister of Great Britain. Obama has all the presentational skills necessary to get his messages and policies across to a wide audience – Brown has none of them.

President Obama has just completed a busy tour of much of the Middle East and Western Europe. It was a political minefield as he tried to convince Muslim countries that the United States was their friend, understanding their aims and ambitions, not the enemy which a minority of their leaders sought to portray. The highlight of his visit was a speech in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

In it, he stressed the vital importance of spreading democracy. The Palestinian Islamic movement, Hamas, must recognise the rights of Israel to live as an independent state and should look inwards to promote a unified and united Palestine. He said that Israeli security was sacrosanct, but that its continuing policy of building settlements in Gaza and the West Bank should end.

With a sideways glance at Iran and North Korea, he spoke of the dangers of extremism and pledged to work towards the world-wide abolition of nuclear weapons. He offered financial support to those Muslim countries which would embrace the concept of equal rights for women saying, “Our daughters can contribute to society as much as our sons.” He said there was no contradiction in terms between progress and tradition.

He acknowledged that his speech contained many unpalatable truths, none of which was easy to address. He had started it by referring to his family’s Muslim background in Kenya and ended by quoting from the Koran, the Torah and the Bible. Peace and understanding between peoples was the common theme. These were fine words, rapturously received in the main, but the Arab world will now wait to see if President Obama can deliver on his promises.

Meanwhile, while all this was going on, the British Prime Minister was fighting for his political life. It’s worth remembering that when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 10 Downing Street in June 2007, there was no general election at which to consult the people, neither had there been a leadership contest within the Labour Party. He had simply been accepted as Blair’s heir apparent, and few disputed the fact at the time.

All went swimmingly at first but then came the beginnings of a world economic recession – not his fault – and the subsequent collapse of a couple of national banking institutions, and the ensuing bail-outs by the government. This WAS seen as Brown-initiated. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had handed over fiscal power to the Bank of England, while continuing to interfere and restrict their freedom of action.

Prompted by a media, eager to pump up a good story, the British public began to wake up to the thought that Mr Brown might not, after all, hold the remedy to their current ills. Then, an American-born journalist, Heather Brooke, who had, for years, been campaigning for public access to details of MPs’ expenses, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, got the breakthrough she had long sought. High Court judges decreed that MPs were not exempt from the publication of such details.

In May 2009, The Daily Telegraph obtained, and began publishing, leaked details of all MPs’ expenses, and the floodgates opened. Details emerged of MPs claiming for two homes at the same time, still claiming interest on mortgages long paid off, claiming for luxury items such as swimming pool repairs and home cinema systems. No one was exempt, not ministers of state nor humble back benchers, and some claims were simply bizarre. The Home Secretary had claimed for two ‘blue movies’ rented by her husband, a Tory MP claimed for cleaning the moat surrounding his stately home and another for a house he built in his lake, for his ducks.

None of these claims were against the law. They were all waved through at the time by a parliamentary watchdog – The Fees Office. They were, however, against the spirit of the law and, immediately the details appeared in The Telegraph, MPs began paying them back. The public was, quite rightly, incensed and rounded on two people who they thought were primarily responsible – The Speaker of the House of Commons, who had tried to suppress the details, and the prime minister.

Under extreme pressure, the Speaker was forced to resign and Gordon Brown removed a couple of ministers from office and promised all-party reform. This didn’t satisfy either the media or the public, who scented blood. There were ‘Brown Must Go’ campaigns but no one, including Labour MPs, could agree on who should take over his mantle. Then came what should have been the coup de grace – local and European elections.

Labour fared disastrously in both, losing control of all but one of their County Councils and coming third, behind the Conservatives and the United Kingdom Independence Party in the European vote. Mr Brown unconvincingly re-shuffled his cabinet and won an unofficial vote of confidence from the Parliamentary Labour Party, but the public and much of the media are, for the time being, denied a General Election, which would put him to a much greater test, and which he would almost certainly lose.

There was, however, a small consolation prize for the prime minister. He had attended the 65th D-Day celebrations in France with President Obama. Afterwards, President Sarkozy invited Mr Obama and his wife, Michele, to a private lunch, but was turned down. Instead Mrs Obama went shopping in Paris. Then, at the end of their visit, the Obamas flew to London, where Michele had tea with Sarah Brown, the wife of the prime minister. It was a nice touch.