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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.

Brown was a formidable student politician, though one unmoved by the revolutionary slogans of the 1968 student left; he did not flirt with the Communist factions that drew in several of his future cabinet colleagues. His focus was always on the Labour Party; he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the Scottish Labour politician James Maxton, of whom A.J.P. Taylor had written, “He was a politician who had …every quality save one—the gift of knowing how to succeed.”

That fealty to Labour tradition helped Brown during the long wait of the Blair era, not least because it contrasted so sharply with a leader who relished his distance from his own party, building his reputation by slaughtering its sacred cows, most famously in his scrapping of Clause IV of the party constitution, which had committed Labour to “the common ownership of the means of production.” Brown may have been the co-architect with Blair of New Labour, the modernized, pro-market party that ended an eighteen-year losing streak, but he never seemed to despise the Labour of old as Blair did. That was only one of several bright distinctions between the two men, who came to represent opposite poles in the Labour imagination. Blair was the friend of celebrities and new wealth, vacationing at the house of Silvio Berlusconi in Sardinia and with the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb in Florida; Brown was the austere, private man who had holidayed since the birth of his children with family and friends in Scotland.

Money frequently landed the Blairs in trouble, from wife Cherie’s acceptance of hefty fees for speaking engagements to the accusation that the then prime minister rewarded high-value donors to Labour with titles and honors, including elevation to the peerage. No such charge was ever leveled against Brown, who as chancellor even eschewed the ministerial Jaguar that was his due, preferring to be driven around in a more basic Ford. While Blair’s dinner guests were minor pop stars and daytime TV presenters, Brown would invite scholars to the Treasury for an in-depth tête-à-tête. Blair had a lawyer’s facility for the quick, fluent answer; Brown’s training was as a historian. Blair was the very model of a twenty-first-century man, all open-necked shirts and mugs of tea, Brown a curious throwback to the last century. (A recent photo-op had him playing tennis in a suit.)

The contrast came almost to seem fated. Blair was blessed with improbable luck, his wife giving birth to a fourth healthy child at the age of forty-five, while Brown appeared doomed to a life of struggle. His first child, Jennifer, was born prematurely in 2001 only to die ten days later. He has since had one healthy son, John, but his second, Fraser, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, an incurable and life-threatening disease. When Brown took over as prime minister, the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell, no friend of the outgoing leader, depicted a Blair-faced sun blotted out by a Brown-shaped cloud.

Brown does not run from the image of the homme sérieux; indeed the unspoken subject of two books he recently published is the “Good Gordon” of indefatigable hard work and compassion for the weak. Speeches, 1997–2006 suggests the unfashionable weight Brown continues to place on that fast-disappearing political form. Until he became prime minister, Brown could work for months on a single speech, consulting experts in the field, reading widely before hammering out a text himself, bashing away with two fingers at a computer keyboard. The result is hardly a light read; many of his talks are clogged with jargon and the technocratic argot of the Treasury he led for a decade. But they suggest the themes that make up the Brown worldview, including combating poverty at home and abroad; defining a public realm “that should never be reduced to transactions, either buying [or] selling”; protecting Britain against the gusts of globalization; and defining a Britishness that might survive the growing appetite for autonomy in Scotland, Wales, and even England.

Each speech is introduced by an encomium from one of a starry list that includes Alan Greenspan, Al Gore, and even J.K. Rowling. If that is the old politician’s trick, standing next to great men and women in the hope that some of their luster might rub off, then it is modest by comparison with Courage. Clearly modeled on John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, Brown has written brief portraits of eight people who displayed exceptional bravery in pursuit of a cause: Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Raoul Wallenberg, Aung San Suu Kyi, Cicely Saunders, who founded the British hospice movement, and Edith Cavell, who nursed the wounded in Belgium during the First World War, helping many Allied soldiers escape back to England.

The political logic is obvious. What could be better, just as Brown enters Number Ten, than to be associated with some of the moral giants of recent history?2 Yet it doesn’t read that cynically. Brown writes that his inspiration was a children’s encyclopedia he read when he was ten, full of tales of heroism and derring-do—of Shackleton, Scott, and Captain Oates among others—which rings true to Brown’s retro personality. (The Conservatives taunt Brown that he is “an analogue politician in a digital age” and it is indeed hard to deny that, despite his early adoption of the Internet, he can seem like an emissary from an earlier era.) Accordingly, the book is written with great brio. Telling Raoul Wallenberg’s story, for example, he writes:

Wanted” posters promising a reward for Wallenberg’s capture were posted around the city [of Budapest]. Hit men stalked him, yet, never sleeping in the same place on consecutive nights, Wallenberg somehow managed to stay one step ahead.

The Spectator called Courage a “beach-read,” which is probably pushing it, not least because there is some sloppy editing throughout. But no British prime minister since Churchill has written anything quite as good, at least not while in active politics.

The truth is that there are nine portraits in this book and the ninth is Gordon Brown himself. His own preoccupations—among them, duty and the call of public service—are visible on every page. But he hovers over it in a larger, less self-serving way, too. For one of the questions that has dogged Brown since the start of his career is whether he himself has the quality he so admires. Even his friends fear that Brown lacks courage.

If he had dared challenge his fellow Scot John Smith for the Labour leadership in 1992 he might have won and thereby kept Blair as the junior partner the latter had been since the pair first met and became allies, sharing a Commons office, in 1983. Downing Street might have been Brown’s in 1997. That he stood aside for Blair in 1994 was, however, a recognition of political reality: polls of Labour Party members showed Blair soundly thrashing him. (Indeed, on this reading, Granita represented not the great betrayal it would come to be in Brownite legend, in which the senior man was deprived of his birthright, but rather a good deal for Brown, in which he got more power than his standing at the time commanded.)

Once in office, Brown had repeated opportunities to strike fatally against Blair, yet each time he refused to do more than wound. The charitable interpretation is that Brown feared the impact of a fratricidal coup on Labour unity; he had seen what the ejection of Thatcher had done to the Conservatives. More selfishly, he had observed that Thatcher’s slayer, Michael Heseltine, did not become prime minister.

Brown’s biggest chances, the moments of Blair’s greatest weakness, both related to the Iraq war. If Brown had joined Robin Cook in resigning from the government in March 2003, there is little doubt Blair would have fallen and British troops would not have been sent into combat. Historians may speculate whether George W. Bush would have gone to war under those circumstances, with no British ally: if the answer is no, then Brown is the man who could have stopped the invasion of Iraq but did not do so. All of which gives an extra charge to the passages in Courage about Bobby Kennedy’s bravery in breaking with his party leadership to oppose the war in Vietnam: Do they suggest regret on Brown’s part that he did not do the same over Iraq?

In fact, Brown maintained a studied silence during the lead-up to war, evidence of what a former civil servant called Brown’s Macavity-like habit of disappearing at the first sign of trouble. That silence allowed the Labour tribe to see Brown as a closet opponent of the war, opposition which even if tacit added to his appeal as the leader-in-waiting. When he eventually endorsed the war, he did so tersely and with such little enthusiasm that the belief lingered on. At the very least it ensured that the Iraq debacle was seen as Blair’s personal calamity, rather than Labour’s.

In 2004 Blair was again vulnerable, shaken by the Abu Ghraib scandal and the Hutton inquiry following the suicide of the government scientist and former UN weapons inspector David Kelly. A parliamentary revolt over university tuition fees saw Blair hanging by the slimmest of threads. Brown had merely to step aside and watch his rival fall. Instead he ordered his loyalists to back off, thereby handing Blair three more years in charge. Now the question over Brown’s courage applies to the future. Should he be called to stand up to the Bush administration, to oppose another ill-conceived military adventure, an attack on Iran for example, would Brown have the strength to do it?

4.

Gordon Brown is approaching the end of his first hundred days in Downing Street, a period he recognized would be critical in establishing himself in the mind of the British electorate. By summer’s end, he had exceeded all expectations including those of the Brown camp itself. Early polls showed Brown with a clear advantage over his more telegenic opponent, the forty-one-year-old Conservative leader, David Cameron, so that most media speculation centered on whether the new prime minister might exploit his popularity and call an early election, thereby gaining his own, fresh mandate. That talk grew so intense that when Labour met for its party conference in the last week of September, delegates, politicians, and press alike spoke of little else.

The positive view of Brown was set abnormally early. He had been in Number Ten for about thirty-six hours when a car bomb was discovered in London’s West End, followed by a failed attack on Glasgow airport. There was no sign of panic. Brown did not rush before the cameras insisting that he was taking personal charge or proclaiming a struggle for civilization, as his predecessor might have done. Instead he had his home secretary, Jacqui Smith, report to the public, making good on his promise to replace the presidentialism of Blair with a return to cabinet government.

When he did comment, following the Glasgow attack, he did so plainly and soberly as if discussing a serious crime rather than an act of war. This fitted Brown’s disavowal of the phrase “war on terror,” which he believes grants too much status, even dignity, to the murderers of al-Qaeda. The new approach, which instantly took the heat out of the moment, spreading calm rather than panic, won universal plaudits, including from Britain’s Muslim communities. A full-page advertisement appeared in several national newspapers a few days later, signed by leading British Muslim organizations, welcoming Brown’s efforts and pledging their cooperation in bringing the guilty to justice. Nothing like that had happened under Blair.

There was a similar absence of grandstanding in Brown’s handling of midsummer flooding in northern and central England, of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle, and of a financial panic in mid-September which saw a run on one of Britain’s largest lenders, the Northern Rock bank (though in that last case Brown’s initial invisibility brought criticism that his Macavity-like habit was resurfacing.) Brown felt able to rely on his ministers in part because he had appointed good ones. Even the usually hostile newspapers had to applaud a team which simultaneously conveyed the arrival of a new government—bringing in six ministers under the age of forty—and seemed to fit the right people into the right jobs.

Brown countered his control-freak reputation by employing several non-Labour figures—commonplace in the US but without precedent in Britain—including a onetime head of the Confederation of British Industry and the former deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, Mark Malloch-Brown. In September he stole a march on Cameron by announcing that two Conservative MPs had agreed to serve as advisers to the Labour government (along with a third, Liberal Democrat MP). He needled the Conservatives still further, and irritated Labour’s remaining leftists, when he hosted Thatcher herself for a tea at Number Ten, the two even posing for photographers together. Brown’s apparent intent was to demonstrate that New Labour’s big tent remained so capacious that it represented something approaching a national government, one that transcended mere party.

Brown knew he had to make an impression before the nation decamped for vacation in August, and he rapidly set about jettisoning troublesome aspects of the Blair inheritance, ditching a plan to allow a Las Vegas–style “super-casino” in Manchester, thereby winning plaudits both from social conservatives at the Daily Mail and from Guardian readers hostile to the get-rich-quick ethos of the Blair era. He made a show of breaking from the culture of spin by announcing government policy on the floor of the Commons rather than by advance leak to sympathetic newspapers, Alastair Campbell’s favored method. He unveiled a program of constitutional reform that had campaigners swooning, including a promise to hand major executive powers—including the authority to send troops into battle—to Parliament.

Nowhere was the shift more apparent than in his relationship with the Bush administration. Brown used his first visit to the US in July to signal, by means subtle and overt, that a change had come. Prior to the trip, the newly installed Foreign Office minister, Malloch-Brown, had warned that London would no longer be “joined at the hip” to the Bush White House. That statement had been swiftly disowned by Brown spokesmen at the time, credibly so given Brown’s committed Atlanticism. Before the arrival of children, he had spent each summer on Cape Cod, mingling with assorted Kennedys; his principal intellectual influences remain American, his reading wide enough to include conservative thinkers such as Gertrude Himmelfarb and James Q. Wilson; and he follows US politics in close detail. Indeed, of the two it had always been Brown who inclined toward America rather than Blair, who tended to prefer Provence and Tuscany. Nevertheless, Brown’s actions at Camp David confirmed the truth of Malloch-Brown’s remark.

Gone were the chinos, first names, and chummy informality of the Bush– Blair summits. At Brown’s request, prime minister and president wore suits and addressed each other formally. Brown wanted to convey that the relationship from now on would be strictly business. Brown’s inability to make smalltalk underlined that he did not want to be Bush’s buddy and that the “special relationship” would be between Britain and the US rather than between Number Ten and the White House. As one of Brown’s allies remarked later: “It was fascinating to watch Gordon turn his pathologies into assets.”3

Brown gave notice as well that he planned to continue the ongoing “drawdown” of British troops from Iraq. Accordingly, September saw the British withdraw 550 men from Basra city, so that Britain’s entire presence in Iraq is now confined to Basra airport. More deeply, Brown conveyed an entirely different understanding of what he didn’t call the war on terror. Central to it is proving to world Muslim opinion that the West offers more hope than violent Islamism.4 Hence Brown’s journey from Camp David to the United Nations, where he argued strongly for a blue-helmeted force in Darfur, armed with a muscular mandate, and for action on the Millennium Development Goals. Brown reckons that if the West is seen to be combating AIDS, poverty, and mass slaughter in Africa then the jihadists’ denunciations of the decadent imperialist powers will fall on increasingly deaf ears in the Muslim world.

The warm reception Brown has so far received has led, inevitably, to a fall in Blair’s stock: the new prime minister is suggesting that things, after all, could have been done differently. More importantly, it has shown that Brown hardly believes himself to be serving out the last days of a twilight administration. If he was an impossible colleague for Blair—like a “mad relative in the attic, constantly banging the floor with a saucepan,” according to one former Downing Street aide—then perhaps that was because of his restless impatience to govern unencumbered. Now this much is clear: his ambition was not for high office but for power and he has every intention of using it.

—September 26, 2007

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    It’s possible to detect a similar purpose in Brown’s nominal authorship of a collection of profiles of unheralded British campaigners and volunteers, published a month after his arrival in Downing Street: Britain’s Everyday Heroes (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2007.)

  3. 3

    See Matthew d’Ancona, “On the Road with Gordon in the Search for Hearts and Minds,” The Spectator, August 4, 2007.

  4. 4

    Brown provided a glimpse of this new thinking in an Op-Ed piece he published to coincide with his first meeting with President Bush. See “Partnership for the Ages,” The Washington Post, July 30, 2007.

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