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Who Is Gordon Brown?

Courage: Eight Portraits

by Gordon Brown
London: Bloomsbury, 274 pp., £16.99

1.

Every sign, whether in his past, in his temperament, or in the usually stubborn laws of political gravity, pointed toward Gordon Brown becoming one of the greatest prime ministers Britain never had. His career could be sketched as a series of missed opportunities, either through bad luck or lack of nerve, until it seemed a matter of fate that his twin ambitions—to lead the Labour Party and to become Britain’s prime minister—would be denied. In 2004 Jonathan Powell, then chief of staff to Tony Blair, told a journalist, “It’s a Shakespearean tragedy. Gordon Brown is like the guy who thinks he’s going to be king and never gets it. He’s never going to be prime minister.”

Brown had, after all, missed out on the Labour leadership in 1994, which he did not contest, making way for the younger Blair, and there were few precedents for a second chance. Brown would have to retain that most precarious of perches, heir apparent, for much longer than anyone had managed before (with the possible, and unhappy, exception of Anthony Eden). Thirteen years ago few would have bet on Brown’s chances of making it. Surely a new generation would emerge; surely Brown would stumble, especially once Labour came to power in 1997 and he was installed as Chancellor of the Exchequer, where any serious buffeting of the British economy would cost him his job.

What’s more, the reasons that had made Blair the obvious choice for Labour in 1994 would still apply: while Brown could be charming in private, he lacked charisma in public. He was untelegenic, a rumpled, sometimes glowering figure prone to firing out machine-gun fusillades of statistics, with a “face like a wet winter’s morning in Fife,” according to the late Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary. Brown lacked Blair’s easy gift for the apparently unrehearsed, empathetic remark, and while Blair spoke with the accent of southern England, must-win terrain for Labour, Brown was from the flinty Scottish town of Kirkcaldy. For all his acclaimed strategic acumen, he seemed destined never to lead but to be, as Tom Bower writes, “the Scottish engineer on the ocean liner, toiling away below decks in the engine room, polishing the pistons and removing the grease.”

And yet on June 27, 2007, three days after he was named Labour leader at a special party conference, Gordon Brown entered 10 Downing Street as prime minister. He had spent much of the previous ten years locked in bitter feuds and turf wars with Blair—over the choice of ministers, over the role of the private sector in the provision of public services, over Britain adopting the European single currency, but always, above all, over a clash of personal ambitions—the two sharing a rivalry that became the defining dynamic of the Labour government. The longest-surviving and most dominant chancellor in British history, he had pushed aside a clutch of potential challengers for the succession, a feat of ruthlessness and stamina without parallel. So complete was his supremacy that he did not even face a contest for the leadership of the Labour Party.

Brown’s critics duly adjusted their expectations. Even if Brown had somehow defied the odds, they predicted he would be a failure in office. His would be a fag-end administration, a rerun of the James Callaghan years of 1976–1979, when another former chancellor inherited from a charismatic, media-savvy predecessor, Harold Wilson, only to face eventual defeat (at the hand, in Callaghan’s case, of Margaret Thatcher). Yet Brown may well confound the skeptics again. His opening months in office have been a success, gaining him a bounce in the polls and widespread approval for solid, steady handling of a run of early crises, attempted terrorist attacks and protracted floods among them. Those qualities once deemed weaknesses—his lack of glitz and sparkle—have come to seem like strengths. The more excitable party members are now asking whether Brown might win an unprecedented fourth consecutive term for Labour, and even succeed where Tony Blair failed, leading a great reforming Labour government.

2.

One of the new prime minister’s most senior cabinet colleagues speaks privately of two Browns: “Good Gordon” and “Bad Gordon.” With relief, the minister adds that it is the former who has been running the country since late June. The latter is the person who comes under examination in Tom Bower’s updated biography, Gordon Brown, Prime Minister.

That will come as little surprise to readers of Bower’s earlier work. He specializes in the meticulous demolition job, piling up the details and revelations that can shatter a public image. (Previous victims include the fraudster-tycoons Robert Maxwell and the recently convicted Conrad Black.)

Bower duly presents a Brown who is both psychologically flawed—to adapt a phrase hurled against the then chancellor by an anonymous official, assumed to be Blair’s former press secretary Alastair Campbell—and a political bruiser of the most brutal kind. This Brown, elected to Parliament in 1983, was a chaotic figure, his apartment swamped in papers and books, prone to sudden and terrible rages. “Repeatedly he lost his temper, screaming obscenities at those he damned as dishonorable or incompetent,” writes Bower. The habit continued in office, with Brown regularly swearing or exploding at those who had crossed him, cold-shouldering, for example, the career officials who questioned his much-heralded move within days of the 1997 election to grant independence over the setting of interest rates to the Bank of England. The Brown of these pages interprets every dissent as betrayal, turning against even close colleagues who have failed to show sufficient loyalty. And he regularly bawls out and defies Tony Blair, his nominal boss, with Blair’s enthusiasm for British adoption of the euro, blocked by Brown, a repeated source of conflict.

Bower grinds through ten years of this behavior, describing every ambush of a Whitehall bureaucrat and trap laid for a luckless fellow minister, every evasion of blame, every outmaneuvering of Blair and the Blairites, particularly Brown’s insistence in October 1997 that Britain would not join the euro until five economic tests had been passed, thereby ensuring that that pivotal decision would be taken in the Treasury rather than Number Ten. All this is both exhaustive and exhausting and it’s clear that Bower expects his readers to be appalled by what he has uncovered.

But Bower’s is, as he acknowledges, a partial account.1 Plainly, he relies heavily on Blairite or at least anti-Brown sources; his interviewees bear the scars of Brown’s power plays and are keen to have their revenge. More damaging are the assaults on Brown’s competence, which run counter to the popular perception of the chancellor as the steady anchor of the Blair government, the solid bank manager behind the TV personality prime minister.

Bower takes up the familiar Conservative lines of attack, starting with the claim that Brown was a control freak as chancellor, determined to micro-manage not just the economy but the entire sweep of British domestic policy, even contractually binding government departments to do the Treasury’s bidding or else face a cut in their budgets. (Such power was possible under the notorious Granita deal of 1994, named after the north London restaurant where Brown agreed that Blair would have a clear run for the Labour leadership, in return for assurances that he would have his way as chancellor—and also, perhaps, though it has never been confirmed, a promise that he would succeed Blair.)

Bower faults Brown for constantly launching complicated bureaucratic schemes and issuing tweaks to the tax system, choking small business and confusing the needy who rely on state benefits. Whether it’s making the tax code eight hundred pages longer in his first three years in office or botching the semiprivatization of the London Underground, throwing away £455 million in lawyers’ and accountants’ fees alone, Brown is cast as a designer of grand schemes with too little regard for their eventual impact and cost.

That Brown has largely escaped blame for all this testifies to his political skills, but also to an economic record that Bower chooses to pass over. Britain has enjoyed consistent growth for every quarter of Labour’s rule (a trend started, admittedly, in the last years of John Major’s Conservative administration), a run whose longevity is unprecedented. Brown was the first chancellor of his party to preside over sustained stability and prosperity, so ridding Labour of what had been an electoral albatross, its reputation for economic incompetence.

Moreover, Brown had not simply let that wealth accumulate, but had—stealthily lest he frighten the only partially mythic conservative kingdom of Middle England—redistributed some of it to the neediest. Bower does not make much of this, or of Brown’s achievement in lifting some 600,000 children out of poverty (his aim is to halve child poverty in Britain by 2010 and to abolish it by 2020). Yet both achievements help explain his later accession to power.

3.

Brown’s focus on alleviating poverty, his scope for maneuver limited by his recognition that the British electorate’s appetite for traditional socialism had vanished, is central to a persona closely related to the “Good Gordon” described by his cabinet colleague. Through the long years of internal opposition, Brown cultivated an image of himself as the keeper of the traditional Labour flame. The chancellor was simultaneously Iron Gordon to the City of London, promising no curbs on the wealth of the super-rich, and Red Gordon, preaching the old-time religion to the Labour faithful, committed in particular to the party’s greatest creation, the state-funded and universal National Health Service established in 1948. Much of this was positioning, establishing Brown as the social democratic alternative to the centrist Blair. But the durability of the myth of Red Gordon owes much to its fit with the man himself.

Born the son of a Presbyterian minister in 1951, Gordon Brown was exposed daily to the human cost of industrial decline. The poor appeared at the door of the Kirkcaldy manse, asking for help. From the pulpit, his father urged on both his community and his sons the duty of hard work and service to others, railing against inequality and the transience of riches. The young Brown was writing political commentaries for his brother’s hand-produced newsletter when he was barely a teenager and was so accomplished a student that he enrolled at Edinburgh University when he was sixteen. However a rugby injury, which detached the retinas of both his eyes, meant that he spent six months of his freshman year in the hospital, bedridden and in complete darkness. The experience left him with a sentimental faith in the NHS that had nursed him to recovery, while confronting the fear of permanent blindness seems to have sealed Brown’s identification with the vulnerable. He emerged blind in his left eye, his right damaged but functioning—though he still needs to print his speeches in large type and to rest them on a bulked-up dispatch box in the House of Commons in order to see them. An ancillary effect was on his face. Not only did the dead left eye alter his appearance, but one of the four operations was botched, so that a smile no longer triggered the appropriate facial muscles. The result is the dour countenance which has become so central to the popular conception of Brown. It means that one of the many shifts of June 27 was the transition from a prime minister who smiled all the time to a prime minister who cannot smile naturally at all.

  1. 1

    For an equally partial account, this time from the Brown side, see Robert Peston, Brown’s Britain (London: Short Books, 2005).

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