Famous, but not a Grouse

A colleague likes to talk about the Ivy League football games he went to as a graduate student at Harvard. Apparently they did not sing the Tom Lehrer Harvard fight song (“Wouldn’t it be peachy if we won the game …”); in fact, the crowd’s invective sounds as though it was scarcely more subtle than that practiced by supporters of Personchester United (as we must learn to call the English-speaking world’s best-known soccer club). The Harvard crowd, it seems, hit a nadir as it chanted at opponents “You may be winning but you still go to Brown,” with substantial emphasis on the final syllable.

These thoughts often stream through what passes for my mind as I spend time in an England governed no longer by the gleaming grin of Tony Blair but by the altogether grimmer visage of Gordon Brown. One could say that the new British prime minister is the gray man of British politics, except that there has already been a Grey administration—the one headed by the Earl Grey, who gave us the 1832 Reform Act and that filthy tea adulterated with oil of bergamot, the English ancestor of Constant Comment.

True, Mr. Brown has gingered things up by allowing eight ministerial colleagues to announce that they smoked cannabis in their youth, and also by appointing as a minister in the Foreign Office a former United Nations eminence who has dared to tell the United States that might may not always be right.

Not the least gray feature of Mr. Brown is the granite town in the east of Scotland where he grew up. I once spent a whole morning behind a stall in Kirkcaldy marketplace (it’s a long story) and had ample opportunity to study the leaden clouds that lurched across the dreich wastes of the Firth of Forth before they unburdened themselves onto to the streaky concrete and dour stone of this dull burgh. The most famous son of Kirkcaldy is Adam Smith, promoter of the dismal science of economics and author of that famous page-turner The Wealth of Nations, which he actually wrote while living at home with his mother. (One wonders how many bawbees a week he gave her towards the housekeeping.)

Mr. Brown is an apt epigonus of the dismal Smith. He has the tidy mind of an economist and, having applied it during the Blair decade to the nation’s finances, he proposes now to redesign that elegant organism, the British Constitution (it does exist, you know, even if it is not written down).

To redesign it, that is, in all but the one particular where it cries out for alteration. When the Blair Administration invented separate national legislatures for Scotland and Wales, it allowed Scots Members of the United Kingdom Parliament to retain the right to vote not only on matters that affect the whole of Britain but also on those that affect only England. An English member now may not vote on the future of foxhunting in Scotland—pas de problème—but a Scots member may still vote on whether it continues in England.

Many English people find this arrangement as quaint as some residents of the District of Columbia find their representation in the U.S. Congress. Mr. Brown thinks it is just fine, and for a very simple reason. The Labour Party, which he leads, has lots of support in Scotland: forty-five seats in the United Kingdom Parliament. His main rivals, the Conservative Party, have very little: only one seat. Does Mr. Brown admit that what worries him is losing all those Labour seats in the United Kingdom Parliament? Of course not; he blathers about sustaining the Union. There are plenty of Englishmen who would be happy to vote for complete independence for Scotland in hopes of resolving this anomaly.

And to show there were no hard feelings, I am sure they would join me in drinking Mr. Brown’s health in a glass of The Famous Grouse. It’s the most popular whiskey in Scotland, available in Minnesota for around twenty dollars a liter. This whiskey is deeper and darker than most of the sweet, pale blends popular in the United States. But for all its firm flavor, the spirit rises through the eyes; there is taste but there is also tingle. It could lift the spirits of folk who dwell below gray skies. Though I suppose it is brown.