Gordon Brown told the US Congress that throughout its history ‘America’, by which he meant the US, had ‘led insurrections in the human imagination’, whatever that might imply. What he presumably meant was that it had made ‘imaginative leaps’, reminded others that their reach could exceed their grasp; some platitude of that order. Or perhaps, since Obama himself (‘nothing’s impossible I have found’) had confected ‘pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America’ using lyrics from a convenient popular song, just ‘to dream the impossible dream’. (Leigh & Darion, from Man of La Mancha, where it’s sung by Don Quixote.)
What Brown is highly unlikely to have meant was that insurrections were jolly good things. Instead of some rebellious version of the future (‘Let us together curb the power of the US,’ ‘Let’s storm the Winter Palace,’ ‘Tear down that flag’ and so forth, or Bisca’s throwaway ‘I don’t know if another world is possible, but this one is impossible’) in which what will happen is unknown, what he actually sought to put across was just the usual, victor’s version of the past turning into the present in which the known and comfortable apex of the present is supported and justified by an earlier courage and by the rhetorical preposition of future unknownness into what’s modally past. In other words, it was no doubt all just flattery intended for a US President who had already said, at the Eastern Inaugural Ball, ‘Today was your day. Today was a day that represented all your efforts, all your faith, all your confidence in what’s possible in America. They said it couldn’t be done. And you did it. And if we apply that not just to elections, but to jobs, to how we rebuild our communities, then when people tell you we can’t employ folks, [that] you are out of work, you say – ?’ To which the crowd had responded predictably, using the words of Bob the Builder, ‘Yes we can!’ like so many Annie Oakleys. The point of course was not that he ‘did it’ or would do it but that he’d won. He did it better than Mr McCain.
And yet ‘insurrections’ was a very nice touch indeed. Besides evoking indirectly but deliberately the US American revolution, Brown was hinting at some sort of popular movement independent of rationality, coming from beneath. (The US Declaration of Independence, as it happens, invokes a ‘natural law’. Within its first few sentences it arrogates apodictic truths that were meant to come from above, in line with Hobbes’ definitions of sedition. And maybe it even carries the memory of a crowd swarming beyond the confines in which they were contained.)
Back in 2004, Brown quoted Roger Scruton (England: an Elegy) wistfully evoking British ‘national character’ (actually ‘English’ character, though Brown doesn’t mention this) as something transcendent or external which exceeds ‘the crowd’ and which Brown called ‘a golden thread’: ‘When people discard, ignore or mock the ideals that formed our national character then they no longer exist as a people but only as a crowd.’ In other words, according to Brown and/or Scruton, there is something mereologically bigger that contains us and which we really ought to respect.
But insurrection finds its origin with that ‘crowd’, with overflowing, with breaking out of containment and not at all with something that falls within the purview of (let’s say) English Heritage. So by saying what he did when he did in Washington, what Brown was expressing was real abjection, albeit in a patronising way: ‘I tip my hat to the new generation’ (The Who, in Won’t Get Fooled Again); the crowd that comes from below and overwhelms me, overtakes me and reforms itself into a ‘people’ has been a process of becoming a new sort of public to which I am subject but to which I do not belong. Although I could not have been that crowd nor am I now that public I still carry the idea of the crowd within me as a keepsake, a sort of memory. I find it soothing when I put my feet up in the evenings.
It isn’t insurrection of the imagination or by the imagination that’s being evoked, in other words, but merely an imaginary insurrection (‘I could have been a contender’), a sense of what might have been. Or insurrection tamed and trapped like a snowstorm inside another glass paperweight on this Prime Minister’s desk.