Who Is Gordon Brown?

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister

by Tom Bower
London: Harper Perennial, 576 pp., £8.99 (paper)

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…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.