Dear Chief Secretary to the Treasury,
I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.
Signed, Liam Byrne

(Outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury. May 2010)

Monday, 9 November 2009

A question of empathy and Mr Brown.

The media and the blogosphere are awash with comment regarding the letter Mr Brown sent to a dead soldier's family. Some are complaining because it is full of spelling mistakes, others say it was a kind gesture and he shouldn't be censured - moreso because he has a sight problem. Some are saying that Mrs Janes should not have contacted the media and is trying to make some personal capital.

Mrs R views it slightly differently. You see, she thinks that Mr Brown, as Prime Minister, represents her. It he and his political party who decides how Britain, and the British people, are portrayed on the international stage.

Mrs R has sent letters or cards to friends or relatives when somebody has died. Mrs Rigby knows that most people keep letters and cards like this for ever, they are a precious memento of their loved one and affirms their belief that the deceased was well loved and well respected. This is why, whenever Mrs R has decided to do more than send a card, it has taken her ages and she's made sure it has been carefully handwritten on decent notepaper.

The easiest way to offer condolences, and to make sure the right words are used, is to go into a shop and buy a preprinted card that contains a message, it avoids having to use your own words, avoids having to write too much and generally fits in with the way most people do things these days. So why, Mrs R wants to know, couldn't Mr Brown use a standard form of letter and simply sign his name at the end? Doing this would have avoided the current wave of controversy, criticism and condemnation, and would have avoided people having once again to take sides.

Mr Brown, as my Prime Minister and my representative, quite rightly contacts the grieving families of deceased troops to offer condolences. It is something Mrs Rigby had assumed he would do as a matter of course, rather than being something special or unusual. He does this as a representative of the nation, not as a private individual - it's the Prime Minister who writes these letters, not Gordon Brown who is only temporarily in the role.

Because of this Mrs Rigby believes he should always put the greatest effort into how such a letter is presented, and believes he should ensure that it is of the highest possible standard. Letters of such personal importance should never be rushed, should certainly never appear to have been written as an afterthought at the end of a busy day. The person who receives the letter needs to know, and needs to believe, that we people of Britain are sorry that their son/daughter/husband/wife/father has died whilst on active service, and that we are indebted to them, for ever - and it is the job of the Prime Minister to ensure that they know this.

Mrs Rigby doesn't think that a handwritten letter scattered with spelling mistakes, including that of the recipients name, is good enough.

More than once Mrs R has thought that, somehow, Mr Brown lacks empathy. He seems to lack the ability to understand how other people feel when he makes mistakes and his own, or his office's, attempts to apologise only seem to make things worse. They seem to dig a deeper hole rather than trying to fill it in. They don't seem to realise that there is always something insincere in a quick apology, more especially when a few moments initial care, and a little attention to detail, would have ensured that no apology would ever be necessary.

BBC radio has reported that Mr Brown takes great care when writing these letters - if that's the case then why so many mistakes? Iain Dale carries a copy the statement issued by Downing Street on behalf of the PM. This are the last sentences. :-
I have at all times acted in good faith seeking to do the right thing. I do not think anyone will believe that I write letters with any intent to cause offence.
This is a typical instance of NLP and is designed to wrongfoot the recipient, to make them question their emotions and feel guilty for being unhappy. This sort of language is designed to ensure that one person, and only one person, retains the upper hand in any argument or dispute.

At the same time the Times reports, Gordon Brown 'mortified' over misspelt letter of condolence (by the way, Times, the words is "misspelled", although it is pronounced "misspelt"!)

Mrs Rigby looked up mortify on Ask Oxford. This is what it says


verb (mortifies, mortified) 1 cause to feel embarrassed or humiliated. 2 subdue (physical urges) by self-denial or discipline. 3 be affected by gangrene or necrosis.
— DERIVATIVES mortification noun mortifying adjective.
— ORIGIN Old French mortifier, from Latin mors ‘death’.
Mrs Rigby has to ask if Mr Brown truly feels embarrassed or humiliated or does the word infer one of the other meanings? She also questions the probity use of the word 'mortify' when referring to mistakes written in a letter of condolence.

Moving onwards, now, and backwards in time.

On Saturday evening (7th November) the BBC broadcast the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance and yesterday it broadcast the service and marchpast at the Cenotaph. (video from aol because the BBC one disappears in 6 days) Mrs R wasn't able to watch either broadcast live, so caught up yesterday evening.

First of all she watched the service at the Cenotaph in London and thought she noticed that Mr Brown didn't bow his head as a mark of respect. She thought, first of all, that she was mistaken or that perhaps the camera had panned away at the crucial moment. It seems not, because many, many people are talking about it and are also making all sorts of excuses. Mrs Rigby wondered if, perhaps, Mr Brown was unsettled by the sombre and grand occasion, maybe he didn't want to bow his head to a pointy bit of granite, maybe he forgot what he was meant to do or maybe he decided to break with tradition. The thing is that none of these excuses hold water.

Mrs Rigby has never been to the Cenotaph, but she has watched the ceremony every year for as long as she can remember and has also attended a local service. She has noticed that every single person who lays a wreath also bows their head for a moment. She knows that they don't bow their head to the Cenotaph or to a War Memorial carved out of stone, she knows they bow their head at what the memorial represents - which is to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth troops who lost their lives in service to their country, so many that, apparently, if they stood in massed ranks preparing to march past the Cenotaph their line would end at Edinburgh.

Mrs Rigby notes what the Army Rumour Service thinks of what happened yesterday at the Cenotaph. You can read for yourself, here.

Within that thread somebody else picks up on another thing Mrs Rigby noticed while she watched the British Legion Festival of Remembrance, which was a wondrous thing that brought many tears to her eyes.

During the broadcast the cameras frequently showed what the Queen, Royal Family, Mr Brown and Mr Cameron were doing. Mrs Rigby noticed that whenever the camera panned on to MMr Brown during the hymns he was looking down at the service sheet, seemingly checking on the words - unlike anybody else in the Albert Hall and slightly surprising for somebody brought up as the "son of the Manse".

Whenever Mr Brown was shown seated, when he should have been watching what was happening below him, he was fidgeting and his gaze wandering around, almost always across to his right, past the Queen to where Mr Cameron was. It was as if he was monitoring other people's actions instead of doing what he was there for - which was to be Mrs R's representative at a Festival of Remembrance. He reminded Mrs Rigby so very much of a child who finds it difficult to sit still and do whatever they're meant to be doing because of other more-important-to-them things going through their mind that they're incapable of suppressing, even for a moment.

But, Gordon Brown isn't a child and he isn't a private individual, he is Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland representing many, many people. The Festival wasn't very long, not even long enough for Mrs R to put it on hold so she could wander off to make a cup of coffee. So why on earth couldn't such an important man sit still for an hour or so?

Why does Mrs Rigby have to be represented by somebody who is, so often, more than a bit embarrassing?
Read Charlotte Gore's opinion of the Brown letter, take note of the comments.

Read Paul Waugh's thoughts here.

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