Yearning for a return to the politics of diversity

THEY say a picture paints a thousand words. They're not wrong. The image of Gordon Brown and Maggie Thatcher standing by the door of Downing Street last week was deeply troubling.

She wore a deep pink dress, he wore a deep pink tie as if Colour Me Beautiful had been called in - or worse. As if they naturally matched. But there were no matching smiles or body language. He looked jumpy, she had the dull, unfocused look of someone struggling with illness. Michael Parkinson said he couldn't make eye contact with the quick-thinking Mohammed Ali after Alzheimer's struck. Brown was clearly uneasy facing a formidable political opponent now struggling to stand.

Our youth-oriented society conceals age and infirmity, so it was disturbing to see an old, hesitant and possibly confused Margaret Thatcher back in the public gaze. And yet, with her trademark pearl necklace, coiffed hair and stiff, formal wave, that single picture of Maggie took each 40-plus viewer back to the days of their worst nightmare or fondest memory.

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"She is a conviction politician. I am a conviction politician like her," said Brown, sounding like a human supermarket two-for-one offer. Really?

For countless Scots, Maggie is still the political anti-Christ. A Motherwell man struggling to express his animosity told me recently in a radio recording: "She's stealing ma oxygen." Another - teetotal since alcoholism prompted by Ravenscraig's closure - bought a drink to celebrate, convinced the Iron Lady must be dead if a journalist was sounding out local opinion. Steel-making has ended, ex-miners have mortgages and shop stewards have bought council houses. Social change has been grudgingly accepted and the odd soul will speak approvingly about the restrictive practices Maggie ended. But ask if Motherwell was a happier place in the steel producing days before Mrs T and there's a resounding "yes" that would be echoed across hundreds of mining and manufacturing towns around Scotland.

Indeed, in a moment of supreme irony, David Cameron's Index of Happiness - unveiled as an alternative to GDP as Maggie posed with Gordon - shows the Brits were last truly happy in the days of public ownership and heavy industry presided over by Harold Wilson.

Traditional Labour voters are not the only ones wondering what Gordon Brown can possibly be trying to achieve by erasing the thin blue line between UK Labour (generally happy days) and UK Tories (generally unhappy days). And starting to consider English society must indeed be a strange beast if Brown must embrace this "auld enemy" to stand a chance of election south of the border.

But English Tory opinion is no happier. Comment in the online Telegraph endorses the view of one shadow minister who said: "Lady Thatcher is 81, elderly, lonely, frail and she has difficulty with her memory. Going back to the scene of her former glories ... she was apparently being exploited by the Prime Minister, [raising] questions about Brown's moral compass and whether he used Baroness Thatcher in a shallow, self-serving and unscrupulous way."

Margaret Thatcher will never be a neutral figure. She thrived on class, geographical and ideological divides that both Cameron and Brown now want to dismantle. That's why - although officially "very relaxed" about Thatcher's "courtesy visit" - David Cameron was fuming. Lady T's visit also happened to take place on the same day Labour announced they would be hiring her golden boys, Saatchi & Saatchi (of "Labour isn't working" fame), to manage their next election campaign. The twin "colour me Tory" initiatives easily overshadowed Cameron's launch of the Conservatives' Blueprint for a Green Economy.

So the Brown and Thatcher picture opportunity was just a clever electoral ruse then? Maybe. But what's truly scary about Brown's claim of common ground with Maggie is the dawning realisation he might just be right. The two are united - not as bold upholders of conviction politics, but as members of an all powerful over-represented elite that's convinced it knows everything - the articulate, affluent chattering class.

Gone are the days when politicians wore their hearts (and their diverse class backgrounds) on their sleeves. Literally: Labour politicians wore jumpers, Lib Dems wore corduroy jackets with patches, Tories wore pin-striped suits, trade unionists wore badges - and no-one wore the presence of women in positions of power.

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These days despite gender diversity, there are precious few diverse opinions in the powerful positions of public life. As a senior public sector executive confided: "Of course we encourage diversity - blacks, Sikhs, women, disabled - as long as they think like us."

For all his talk of conviction, it appears Gordon Brown wants to convince voters that those people and their interests are just the same as Middle Englanders or indeed Central Bearsdeners with second homes and kids in private schools. Class is dead, so Labour under Gordon Brown can aspire to contain everything (and everyone) needed to manage a "decent" society. There will be no ideological space left outside for "opposition" because everyone that matters will be inside. Labour will contain society. Which is presumably why Gordon Brown thinks he must try to contain the prickly legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

The widening gap between the rich and the poor and the empty faces outside No 10 suggest some old legacies are best left alone and some political divides are there for a good reason.