Gordon Brown’s poignant departure from 10 Downing Street on the evening of May 11 brought to mind Enoch Powell’s dictum that all political lives except those cut off prematurely end in failure. “Only those who have held the office of prime minister can understand the full weight of its responsibilities and its great capacity for good,” Brown said outside the cramped Georgian row house he had occupied for almost three years. “I have been privileged to learn much about the very best in human nature and a fair amount too about its frailties, including my own.” The note of self-deprecation represented a rare glimpse of the private Brown, as did the parading before the cameras of his two young sons, John (six) and Fraser (three), whom, since succeeding Tony Blair in June 2007, he had kept out of the public eye.
Behind Brown’s image as a dour technocrat lurks a complex, volatile, almost Shakespearian figure. A political activist since his days at Edinburgh University, he spent more than thirty years climbing to the top of Westminster’s greasy pole, only to slither down it in agonizingly short order. After a short honeymoon period in 2007, he had to endure slumping poll ratings, constant gossip about his possible replacement, and even questions about his sanity.
Brown has a famously bad temper, which, as the British journalist Andrew Rawnsley revealed in a book published in March, he was apt to direct at his Downing Street staff. Suggestions that Brown might be losing it were nothing new. In 1998, during one of his early feuds with Blair, somebody in the Blair camp—widely believed to be Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spokesman—told a reporter that Brown was “psychologically flawed.” Through the years, his enemies in the party, many of whom appear to have served as sources for Rawnsley, kept up a whispering campaign about his mental state. In the spring of 2007, when Blair was preparing to resign as prime minister and let Brown take over, Frank Field, a veteran Labour MP, went to Downing Street and pleaded with him to stay. “You can’t go yet,” Field reportedly said. “You can’t let Mrs. Rochester out of the attic.” According to Rawnsley’s account, Blair roared with laughter.
That was the right attitude. Brown isn’t a madman: he is a passionate, brooding Scot, who is aware of his own shortcomings. Touring a college in his constituency a couple of days after resigning, he said: “I was actually thinking of coming in today and applying for the course on communication skills.” One on one, Brown can be gracious and warm, displaying a passion for poetry and history. After graduating in the early 1970s, he wrote a doctoral thesis on the early history of the Scottish Labour Party, taught politics at Glasgow College of Technology, and did a stint in television journalism. Shortly after he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, I encountered him …