x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Bullying's a tough job - just ask my former art teacher

Should we demand probity and calm for someone like Gordon Brown who achieves things no matter the cost?

Whenever I think of my school days, I always recall my old art master, "Killer" Reeve. His nickname was well earned. Teacher, ex-Olympic swimmer and gold-medal martinet, lessons with him were events to be feared. With a face set in a permanent scowl, gelled, black hair and a bristling moustache and demeanour to boot, he ruled by a mixture of shock and awe. I once saw him staple a boy to his desk by his school blazer, and it was rumoured that if you enraged him sufficiently, he would produce a curved scimitar from his desk and force the miscreant to run their index finger along the blade in front of his trembling classmates. Having dismissed this urban legend for some years, I eventually witnessed the ceremony for myself.

I've been wondering this week how the UK's current crop of politicians might have coped with a double lesson from the Killer. But of course, nowadays they wouldn't have to: they'd merely phone the National Bullying Helpline and await the arrival of the authorities. This exotically named charity has been much in the news recently, after a new book by the political journalist Andrew Rawnsley claimed that prime minister Gordon Brown runs his fiefdom within 10 Downing Street by a culture of terror similar to that espoused by my old art teacher.

Mr Rawnsley's book describes a volatile, ill-tempered and increasingly querulous prime minister, given to throwing both tantrums and expletives at quailing subordinates. Although the accusations have been dismissed by Downing Street as "without foundation", his book poses the obvious question: is this individual fit to be in charge? In the wake of this exposé, suddenly everyone seemed to be a bully. When Mr Rawnsley appeared on the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight, the interviewer attempted to bully him into admitting his claims were no more than hearsay and tittle-tattle put about by disaffected minions. After, the ex-deputy prime minister John Prescott (whose own political stock rose sharply after he felled an egg-throwing demonstrator with a well-judged right hook) tried to bully Mr Rawnsley into revealing his sources.

By the following day the founder of the aforementioned National Bullying Helpline, Christine Pratt, had waded in, confirming that staff in 10 Downing Street had indeed contacted her organisation for help. But then it transpired many of the calls had not been about the PM at all (in fact, some had been about Mr Prescott). Worse still, it later transpired that back in 2003, Mrs Pratt herself had lost an employment tribunal after being accused of - yes, you guessed it.

Among all this bullying and counter-bullying, the question of what qualities we should demand from our political leaders remains at the heart of the debate. Should we seek probity and calm, or someone who gets things achieved at whatever cost? Is it best to have a leader who understands a problem from every angle, or one who asserts his views quickly and firmly? "I used to be indecisive but now I'm not so sure" may be a popular motto for hanging on office walls, but if espoused by political leaders, such sentiments can prove catastrophic.

Whatever Mr Rawnsley's motives in writing his book, it's difficult to see what the fuss is about. As Oscar Wilde famously said: "Democracy is the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people," and the revelation that Mr Brown isn't eating cucumber sandwiches and plumping cushions but getting up close and personal with the issues of the day hardly seems much of a scoop. Tellingly, Mr Brown's political popularity has fallen not one jot in the wake of this furore. For if nothing else, it proves that blood is coursing through his veins rather than weak tea.

And while no one yearns a return to the sort of decisive leadership espoused by Hitler or Stalin, there is a fine line between bullying and assertiveness. Ask any Manchester United footballer who has endured one of Sir Alec Ferguson's half-time "hairdryer" tirades what they think of their boss. There's no need, though: a record of 11 Premierships titles speaks for itself. So perhaps Mr Brown is correct to follow in the footsteps of my old art master, even if he risks being branded as a bully in the process. And while it may be too much to suggest chastened cabinet colleagues run their fingers along the edge of a scimitar, Mr Brown would certainly win popular support if he proposed it as a way of punishing the UK's discredited financial supremos.

Come to think of it, if he substituted their throats for their fingers, he'd surely win the forthcoming general election by a landslide. Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London.