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Con Houlihan: Gordon awaits his finest hour

There could never be any doubt about Gordon Brown's integrity: he is a Scot and the son of a clergyman. And there could be no doubt about his strength of character: he went through a very trying time when he lost the sight of an eye in a rugby accident and, but for brilliant doctors, he might have gone totally blind.

Perhaps he may have seen this miracle as a sign from God that he was destined for great things. From early manhood he set his mind on becoming prime minister and he pursued that goal with enormous energy.

We have heard endless tales about his ruthlessness and his bullying, but all those have come from inside the Labour Party and can be taken with a fair amount of salt. It is true, of course, that in contrast to Tony Blair he is hardly a charming man. Blair appeared to have learned by heart that awful book by Dale Carnegie, How To Make Friends And Influence People. Brown, as you would expect from a Scot, got a thorough education and he excelled especially in mathematics. You could say that he was born and trained to be chancellor of the exchequer. He always boasted about the importance of the health bill brought in by the Labour government in 1948 and he grieved to see it being chipped away and chipped away in Margaret Thatcher's regime. As soon as he could, he gave health sufficient funds to bring it up to the level of the best countries on the European mainland.

He is a brilliant speaker, especially on the economy. He was regarded by almost everybody as the best man to safeguard the public purse, but he was unlucky in that he had to deal with the collapse of Northern Rock and did not do so decisively. The truth, I suppose, is that it was an impossible task. It involved too many elements, not least the Bank of England. Television, like the wheel, changed the world, and all for the better, but it has its drawbacks.

The most obvious is that it can influence politics far too much. We all know now that television debates can be crucial. One remembers what Dessie O'Malley said long ago: "You can win or lose an election by a haircut." It is never good to lose any competition but it is heartbreaking to lose by an own goal as almost certainly happened to Gordon Brown.

Before the election he was at a meeting in Rochdale where a longtime Labour member asked him a question about immigration. Brown argued with her fairly and logically and she seemed satisfied, but as he got into his car, he forgot that the microphone was still turned on and he referred to her as a bigoted woman. His mistake made headlines and Gillian Duffy found herself famous overnight.

The election was lost, but not irretrievably. There was the chance that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats might form a coalition with Labour. Brown resigned his leadership, but in vain. The small party jumped the other way. I doubt if Brown has despaired: he knows his history and is aware Winston Churchill was twice in the wilderness and twice came back and ended up as prime minister.

When World War One started, Churchill was almost a forgotten man but suddenly he was declared first lord of the admiralty.

He disappeared from politics again and he seemed to have no future until the fortunes of war saw Neville Chamberlain quit as prime minister. Churchill was recalled. No doubt Brown believes his turn may come to get back to Number 10.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg came to an agreement so quickly that it gave "indecent haste" a new dimension. They had to set out a plan by which they could govern about a hundred million people -- that should surely have taken a longer time.

Of one thing you can be sure: when Clegg struck his bargain, he got Cameron to agree on electoral change, because the present first-past-the-post system is very bad for small parties. The British, and especially the English, boast that their island is the mother of democracy, but that democracy exists on a very unfair electoral system. Margaret Thatcher ruled with a clear majority in Westminster, though she had only a minority of the popular vote.

This is absurd and it is hard to understand why the British people endured it for so long. There is a danger here that, at home, could be disastrous. It is worrying that both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are making noises in this context. Those of us who are older remember that Fianna Fail made two attempts to oust proportional representation and to replace it with the first-past-the-post system.

In this context Eamon de Valera performed a mesmerising piece of mental acrobatics.

He said that we should reject PR because it was a British system. It was true it originated from a small group of political philosophers in England around the start of the 20th century and thus it was an English system. He proposed to replace it with a system that was in use in Britain, the unfair system that they still have. And so he was proposing to abolish PR because it was of English origin and to replace it with a system that was in use in Britain. His logic passeth understanding and the Fianna Fail Party disgraced themselves by combining a referendum with a presidential election.

Their slogan was Vote Dev And Yes, so that simple-minded people might think that if you didn't vote for both, your vote was invalid.

If PR had been abolished, Fianna Fail would have had a huge majority in the Dail, possibly up to 130 seats. Fine Gael might have the rest and it could happen that Labour would have no seat at all. The consequences would be calamitous. Industrial turmoil would set the State back for years.

Fogra: A warm welcome goes to Maggie Cantwell, beloved wife of the late Noel, on her visit to Ireland