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Friday, 28 September 2007

28 September 2007

Bournemouth first, then Burma … it’s been a week of Bs. (Yes, there’s one more next week as well: Blackpool beckons.)

I’ve been trying to work out why Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour party conference was so flat. I’ve heard a dozen of these set-piece orations from Mr Brown, and most of them have had at least a bit of old-time religion, a bit of Labour passion to get the delegates’ blood running.

Not this time, though, and I think there may be a simple explanation. It wasn’t Brown we were listening to, it was anti-Blair. Blair was flash; Brown isn’t. Blair was an orator; Brown isn’t (not any more, at any rate). And the political calculation is obvious: if David Cameron wants to be the “heir to Blair”, just when voters seem to have had enough of Blairism, well, what better person to turn to than anti-Blair (and, of course, by implication, anti-Cameron)?

And I’m indebted to Daniel Finkelstein of The Times for pointing out why parts of the Brown speech may have sounded vaguely familiar to any Americans who happened to be listening. “Sometimes people say I am too serious,” said the Prime Minister. “I know that sometimes people say I'm too serious,” said US presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000.

“This is my pledge to the British people: I will not let you down,” said Mr Brown in Bournemouth. “I pledge to you tonight … I will never let you down," said Mr Gore in 2000. Could it be, as Finkelstein suggests, that veteran US consultant and speech-writer Bob Shrum had a hand in it?

My last reflection from Bournemouth relates to something I remarked upon when Tony Blair announced he was standing down in May. He spoke then of Britain (“open-minded about race and sexuality, averse to prejudice and yet deeply and rightly conservative with a small 'c' when it comes to good manners, respect for others, treating people courteously”) in terms which sounded exactly as if he was talking about himself.

Mr Brown did the same this week: looking back on the summer’s various crises – attempted suicide bombings in London and Glasgow; floods; foot and mouth disease – “Our response was calm and measured. We simply got on with the job. Britain has been tested and not found wanting.” Just like you-know-who.

And so to Burma. Tens of thousands of protesters out on the streets; and a sclerotic military regime responding the only way it knows how. I’ve been trying to imagine how it looks to Burma’s two giant neighbours: India on one side, China on the other.

Both have major economic and strategic interests in Burma. Each is anxious to prevent the other gaining too much influence. Beijing wants to ensure that nothing gets in the way of a successful Olympic Games next year (although I hear whispers that preparations are not going well on that front). Delhi wants to ensure that in the race to become Asia’s undisputed economic super-power, China doesn’t gain too much of an advantage by tying up valuable energy deals with the Burmese generals.

So who can pull the levers to influence the generals’ response to the most serious challenge they’ve faced for nearly 20 years? And if the answer is India and China, then who can pull the levers to influence their response to the Burmese crisis? China has already shown in both North Korea and Sudan that it knows how to use its diplomatic muscle when it chooses to do so; perhaps the current crisis will provide another opportunity. As for India, which wants desperately to join China as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, perhaps it’ll conclude that a bit of skilful diplomacy in Burma is just what’s needed to burnish its credentials. I wonder …

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