Despite his many faults, Brown was a towering figure who made the right calls on the biggest issues facing our worldby Jonathan Freedland / December 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Two decades ago it became commonplace to describe Bill Clinton as the most psychologically complex occupant of the Oval Office since Richard Nixon. If we were to award a British equivalent of that accolade—nominating the most psychologically complex occupant of Downing Street since Churchill—there would surely be no contest. Compared to the breezy ease of Tony Blair, the granite certainty of Margaret Thatcher, the smooth-cheeked entitlement of David Cameron or the wily genius of Harold Wilson, there is only one figure who boasts the requisite contradictions and paradoxes, the towering strengths and profound flaws, to merit such a description. It is, of course, Gordon Brown—and now he has written his life story.
Wittingly or not, it’s all here in My Life, Our Times: the qualities that instilled such deep admiration and loyalty in colleagues and friends that they would work around the clock for him, alongside the behaviour that made others, including those surrounding Blair, curse him to the heavens. The result is a book that gives a full account of a character who can still baffle and perplex as well as inspire—and with a record that only looms larger the more distant from it we become.
The Brown-haters will find all the ammunition they want between these covers. Indeed, My Life, Our Times has already suffered the fate of many a political memoir. Commentators who had apparently digested its 500 pages in a matter of hours were eager to review the man rather than the book, and to do so negatively. In the Times, Daniel Finkelstein was scathing. Dismissing Brown’s claim that discomfort with modern media played a part in his woes, Finkelstein wrote: “The idea that Twitter was your big problem is absurd. It wasn’t 140 characters that led to your downfall, it was one character: yours.”
But even Brown’s worst enemies can’t pretend they don’t find that character fascinating. They regularly concede that he was a protagonist of Shakespearian stature. For them, Brown was not just a tragic hero, he was a one-man trilogy, exhibiting the ambition of Macbeth, the hesitation of Hamlet and the destructive jealousy of Othello.
If you’re looking to confirm that view, this book will help, though alongside heavy qualification and explanation. Brown cannot deny that he agitated for the throne, but insists that he was not one of those politicians who had lusted for No 10 since childhood. Instead, he writes that following the death of John Smith in 1994 he and Blair had an agreement—already reached by the time they came to dine together at Granita—that Blair would hand over the leadership during a prospective second term. Brown says he simply wanted to see that agreement honoured. Any urgency came not from unbridled ambition but his understanding that politicians have a natural shelf-life of around seven years. Hang around at the top for much longer and the public will soon get sick of you. It was for that reason, Brown writes, that he wanted a transition to happen in 2004 or so—before the public succumbed to the seven-year itch.
As for his indecision, that was most famously demonstrated in 2008 and the election that never was. “I had never wanted an early election,” Brown protests in his book. His mistake was allowing speculation that he did. But he concedes that his announcement of the non-election was “a political catastrophe,” not least because he failed to admit that negative polls “lay behind the final decision.”
The jealousy does not need spelling out. Brown’s resentment of Blair runs throughout the book. He pays tribute often to his predecessor, to his eloquence and his skills, but he cannot help settling even minor scores, recounting disputes over now-forgotten tactical questions in which the reader is invited to conclude that TB was wrong and GB was right. Brown has an elephantine memory when it comes to slights and betrayals. He lets us know, for example, that he briefed Cameron in confidence on the fleeting return in 2007 of foot-and-mouth disease—an outbreak that was contained as it had not been six years earlier—only for Cameron to use the information to go “on television to attack me.”
Hostile readers will also seize on his tendency to evade responsibility when things go wrong. The more seasoned among them will recall his response when his press secretary, Damian McBride, was caught plotting to smear the prime minister’s enemies: one of his closest colleagues was suddenly and conveniently recast as merely “this individual” and the “person who is responsible.” There is little in these pages about hurled telephones or computer monitors knocked off desks, whether by Brown himself or those elements of his entourage who seemed to regard The Thick of It as an instruction video.
More substantively, there is less soul-searching than there might have been about his indulgence of the banks. Before the crash, Brown would talk about “not just a light touch, but a limited touch” in regulation—not a rare attitude for a politician back then, but one which surely paved the way for the almighty return of boom and bust, which Brown claimed to have abolished.
Still, the tendency to blame others for things that went wrong is a defect of almost all political autobiography. More specific is the charge that Brown arrived in No 10 unexpectedly devoid of ideas. That brief honeymoon in the summer of 2007—in which he took control of the floods that swept the country, holidayed in Dorset rather than Tuscany and closed a super casino—promised more than it delivered. Brown’s defence—that, in fact, he had a full agenda, but the financial crisis devoured all his government’s energies and left room for little else—will convince only those already sympathetic.
Nor are the sceptics likely to be persuaded by the reasons Brown gives for going along with the Iraq war. He sets great store by a document from the United States that he only saw years later, which cast grave doubt on the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Had he seen it at the time, he argues, it would have changed everything. To which the natural response is that millions of us, privy to no secret papers, could see it was a mistake to follow George W Bush into Iraq, so why couldn’t he?
Most will give equally short shrift to Brown’s lament that the newspapers were too hostile, television and radio too superficial and social media too fast and too furious to allow for the serious national conversation he wanted to have. For one thing, it falls foul of Enoch Powell’s truism that a politician complaining about the press is like a sailor complaining about the sea. It’s no good moaning—your job is to navigate a way through it. Others have managed it, and not only maestros of communication like Blair and Barack Obama. Even Jeremy Corbyn, facing newspapers even more hostile than those that tormented Brown, manages to get his message across.
Indeed, Brown should know that such political communication is possible because he used to do it so well. He was once a master of the soundbite. He reminds us not only of the enduringly brilliant “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” which he gifted to Blair, but several other of his greatest hits. Under John Smith, Brown had been the star performer in Labour’s shadow cabinet. A favourite target was the chain-smoking, do-nothing Trade and Industry Secretary, Nicholas Ridley. When Ridley was appointed, Brown asked: “Did he say to the prime minister, ‘Give me the department and I will finish the job,’ or did he say, ‘Give me the job and I will finish the department?’” Brown once told the House that Ridley’s desk “had no in-tray, no out-tray—only an ashtray.”
And yet, for all the legitimate criticisms you can make, the more open-minded reader will find much here to admire. Brown is a man of ideas, perhaps the most intellectually curious inhabitant of Downing Street since Harold Macmillan. He read hungrily in office, and has kept on reading. A chapter on religion includes references to Habermas, Rawls and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, and they are not there simply for name-drop value.
Of course, academic smarts and political judgment are not the same thing. But any fair assessment of this book and Brown’s career shows that on most of the big questions, he was right.
The outstanding example is his response to the financial crisis. How they laughed when a slip of the tongue had Brown claiming to have saved the world, but these days it’s accepted—even by his fellow chancellor George Osborne—that he came pretty damn close. The banks were falling over in 2008 and total financial collapse was imminent. The chapters on the crash are fast, tense and riveting and there is no denying it: Brown was the hero. His two-word memo, etched in his trademark thick, felt-tip pen, as he flew across the Atlantic in the dead of night, would avert catastrophe: “RECAPITALISE NOW.”
His plan for a global stimulus to prevent the great recession becoming the great depression was crucial too. At the time, the Brookings Institution predicted that the London G20 meeting in April 2009, which Brown chaired, “will be seen as the most successful summit in history.” Add to that his resistance to joining the euro and his granting of independence to the Bank of England, and Brown’s record on the economy—the very issue over which he took such a beating in the 2010 election campaign—only looks more impressive with time.
In office, Brown was mocked for his obsession with “Britishness.” Commentators teased his attempts to define that elusive quality, ascribing his patriotic quest to an insecurity over being the Scottish prime minster of a predominantly English union. But it has come to look prescient, especially after Brexit. Brown understood early that the institutions that once bound the four nations of these islands together were receding, and that the union was in peril. Part of his commitment to the NHS is born of his understanding that it is one of the few ties that bind all Britons together. Whether or not it was his closing argument during the 2014 Scottish independence campaign that swung it for “No,” his advocacy of Scottish devolution in the 1970s, like his call for a quasi-federal constitution now, confirm that his is a voice worth heeding on the state of our union: he saw the warning signs earlier than most.
Brown has also thought hard about globalisation, scolding himself that he never managed to find a way of taming it after the crisis. He is clear that, like climate change, globalisation can only be addressed through close international co-operation—balanced by the necessary degree of national autonomy our sense of identity demands. Without common, globally-enforced rules on tax havens or labour standards there will always be a race to the bottom—profiting the very richest and leaving hundreds of millions behind. Inattention to this fundamental problem created the conditions in which Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the resurgence of populist nationalism were bound to happen.
In making that case, Brown uses language we rarely heard when he was in office. He repeatedly attacks “neo-liberalism,” a word that marked you out as a dangerous leftie in the New Labour era. He is entering space opened up by Corbyn, but the succour today’s Labour leadership can draw from this book is limited. Brown warns that the nature of globalisation, along with automation, leaves little scope for “socialism in one country.” Only global action can solve the problems that confront us now.
The reasoning is hard to dispute; it’s the political realism that’s the trouble. If Brown couldn’t get the G20 to adopt this approach in 2009—when Britain was in the EU and Obama was in the White House—how much more remote is such a prospect now? And yet Brown is right. If we are ever to tackle the downsides of globalisation, we’ll have to do it globally.
But perhaps the theme that the unjaundiced reader would detect most keenly in Brown’s life story is one that political commentary shies away from: morality. Most people have no idea that Brown refuses to take his prime ministerial pension. Or that the earnings from this book are going to children’s charities. Or that he refuses to be paid for opinion pieces he writes for newspapers. Or that he lives in a relatively ordinary house in Fife. The contrast with Tony Blair, who now inhabits the private jet realm of the super-rich, is striking.
There’s more to this than personal self-restraint. Brown burns with the urge to reduce or even eradicate poverty. It’s his obsession. That’s what lay behind his deployment of tax credits as chancellor then, and that’s what animates his work as a UN Special Envoy for Global Education now. It’s why he imposed a windfall tax on the utilities then, why he wants to tax the tech giants now. It’s why he became fixated with persuading the world’s richest countries to write off the debts of the poorest in 2000 and again in 2005. Brown is a man of monumental moral ambition—and poverty is his core mission.
Mission is the right word. In a short but affecting chapter on his childhood, Brown writes that growing up in Kirkcaldy, “I could step out my front door and, in a matter of minutes, walk past nine churches that were within only a few hundred yards of each other.” Elsewhere, an unexpected line leaps out. Having charted the major social changes of recent decades, from globalisation to technology to women’s equality, he suggests that the phenomenon that will be seen by historians as “perhaps the most important shift affecting our country” is the decline of religion.
It strikes me that Brown is offering a glimpse here of something critical to understanding him. In a chapter entitled “Faith in the Public Square?,” he refers, without elaboration, to “my strong personal religious beliefs.” In the same paragraph, he says: “If the values that matter most to me are the values that I speak about least, then I am, at least in part, in denial of who I really am.”
Does this get us closer to explaining why Brown struggled to communicate—a failure which the book returns to again and again—why, indeed, he looked so uncomfortable in his own skin? Did this son of a preacher feel he could never admit what actually drove him, fearful that Alastair Campbell was right and that, in British politics, “We don’t do God”?
Brown’s life has never been easy or straightforward. On the day he succeeded Blair in 2007, the Guardian’s Steve Bell drew a cartoon that showed the sun, a smiling Blair, steadily eclipsed by a dark, brooding cloud: Brown. It was prophetic. Soon the golden economic years of that first Labour decade would be brought to a sharp halt by the collapse of Northern Rock. But it captured something more essential too.
Blair was blessed by uncanny good luck, while tragedy seemed to follow Brown. Blair became a father while in Downing Street, a fourth healthy child delivered to a mother who was 45. Brown, nearly blinded in his youth, became a father too in 2001—but his daughter, Jennifer, lived for only a few days before dying in her parents’ arms. For a year afterwards, Brown confesses, he could not listen to music.
Through the decades, it seems, Brown was burdened by guilt over his ambition. He insists on his hesitation before writing a memoir at all, as if the very idea is vanity. Repeatedly, he swears that his motive for this or that move was not personal, but for the sake of others. While Blair’s autobiography laid bare an unabashed desire for power—he recalled his “animal” devouring of Cherie’s love on the night John Smith died, as he steeled himself to seize the Labour leadership—Brown is constantly checked by the obligation he feels to show humility, reluctance and a purity of intention.
Perhaps the most telling detail in the book is an aside about his mother: “She went grey in her early forties,” he writes, “in an era when it was thought self-indulgent to dye your hair.” Think on that for a moment and then ask yourself: is it any wonder that the son of that woman felt ashamed of his own vaulting ambition, and forever felt compelled to cover it with a tortured modesty that few found convincing?
Like our times, Brown’s life is complicated, contradictory, full of irritations, frustrations and even rage. But as this absorbing memoir makes clear, he is also a man who, in both his willingness and ability to tackle the most pressing questions of our age, towers over those who currently fill the political stage. Posterity will regard him more kindly than his contemporaries; his name will not be forever associated with catastrophic error, as Blair’s will be linked to Iraq and Cameron’s to Brexit. He is one of the giants of our recent political history—and this book explains why.
My Life, Our Times by Gordon Brown is published by Bodley Head (£25)
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