by Ian Bell

The ‘Tragedy’ of Gordon Brown

September 15, 2014 | by Ian Bell

FEW profiles of Gordon Brown omit the word tragedy. The choice of language is odd, even in the devalued currency of magazine headlines. He might not have won every prize he sought, but the member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath could surely claim to have done a bit better than most.

 Until hell sent a bankers’ handcart for the global economy, James Gordon Brown was reputed to have been one of the most adept Chancellors of the Exchequer Britain had seen. Until an accumulation of disgust for his predecessor and former friend, Tony Blair, overwhelmed him in 2010, the son of the manse occupied the office of prime minister, for most of three years, with his usual, fastidious attention to detail.

 That’s not how the story goes, however. In the usual tale Brown is a brooding figure condemned to pay the price for hubris and obsessive ambition. As often as not, this Achilles in a baggy suit sulks in his tent. He is depicted as a man so consumed by the politics of petty rivalry and personal advancement that he forgets why he became a politician – a socialist politician – to begin with.

 A coward who still denies ownership of the words will add that this figure was, perhaps still is, ‘psychologically flawed’. ‘Gordon,’ they will tell you even now, ‘is a bit, you know…’ For the sake of a mere career a fine mind was forfeited. In office, by this legend, Brown lost sight of the famous big picture. He plotted and schemed against Blair relentlessly, to the detriment of the national interest. He threw phones around. He was, they say, a bully. In the end, all the spin left him reeling, disoriented, lost.

 The fables of political failure lean heavily on myth. Brown has suffered deep personal sadness in his life, but his political career was hardly tragic. His premiership was blighted by the bankers and New Labour’s superstitious devotion to finance, but he caused no havoc – and launched no criminal wars – while in 10 Downing Street. He was less the hero laid low by overweening pride than a Labour leader too busy being clever to see that a snap election in the autumn of 2007 would have saved his skin and his government.

 As ever, history has been rewritten, in this case to the point of absurdity. Who now remembers the general relief when the increasingly odd Blair gave up the political ghost? Who is prepared to say that for the first half year of his tenure Brown was a popular PM? When – and why – was it forgotten that the acclaim for his handling of the great banking crash was a global phenomenon? Amid the carnage, governments around the world listened to the Scot in Downing Street. He seemed to know – arguable though the proposition was – what he was talking about.

 Still: the man who now lectures Scotland of pensions threatened by independence laid waste the pensions industry. As Chancellor, he allowed the bankers to run amok. His bizarre decision on the 10p tax rate in 2008 and the exposure of institutionalised corruption among MPs in early 2009 reeked of moral failure. Above all, Brown got to Downing Street when the pretences of new Labour, the enterprise of which he was a parent, were exhausted. If literature is relevant, irony applies. In the end, Brown got the blame for Blair, the estranged and erstwhile brother in arms.

 The tale has another layer. This Scot, never accomplished at making close friends, had made enemies without number in London. Some hated him because he had trodden them underfoot. Some could not – still cannot – retire from the Blair-Brown wars. Some who demanded preferment were denied. Some thought, as they would say, that he was bonkers, or brutish, or simply incapable of understanding that he might ever be wrong. And some just loathed the Jock.

 Even when things were at their worst for Brown, when it had become routine in the London press to call him ‘the worst Prime Minister since’ (take your pick), his popularity among Labour voters in his own country did not falter by much. There was a sense, in fact, that he was being picked on because of his origins, because he continued the hope of ‘real’ Labour, and just because he was thrawn. Like us, supposedly.

 In Scotland, James Gordon Brown has long been regarded as a kind of representative man. Even his allegedly curious inability to smile effectively on demand for the press cameras is treated as a mark of his authenticity. His father was a minister of the Kirk. He was a student of history, by all accounts a brilliant one, at Edinburgh at the age of just 16. He was devoted to work for its own sake and for the sake of others. Back then, in the middle of the 1970s, he gave us The Red Paper on Scotland.

 By the end, when he walked out of Downing Street with his family in May 2010, the disdain in London was palpable. Back in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, he had just been returned with 64.5 per cent of votes cast. The voters of Britain couldn’t wait to be shot of him, so it was said, but Scotland didn’t feel that way. This might be called Brown’s Paradox.

 In his 63rd year, he fights to preserve a United Kingdom founded on what he would call Labour’s values. He publishes a book, My Scotland, Our Britain, that attempts to explain both the arguments and the man. In the name of ‘A Future Worth Sharing’, as his sub-title runs, he refuses to share a campaign platform with Tories. In the volume there are autobiographical passages which make a near-explicit connection between a man’s life and the recent history of his country. Or countries.

 For Brown, the argument over independence is personal. That’s as it should be, no doubt. But a volume such as My Scotland, Our Britain is as much an attempt to vindicate a life as it is an effort to justify a 307-year-old constitutional arrangement. What will it all have been about for Brown, and for others in the cast of Scottish Labour, if the vote is Yes? The country that rejects their party will also be rejecting them, as people and as politicians. They will be judged, and judged to have failed.

Brown’s bulwarks can be found in what he calls ‘A Sharing Union’. Others might simply call it the Labour tradition. He places Scotland in the context of a globalised world and reasons – for he does reason – that interdependence is an advantage waiting to be exploited, not a barrier to progress. He recalls the history of redistribution within these islands in the face of de-industrialisation. He invokes the Scots who were architects of the NHS. ‘Pooling and sharing’, these days Brown’s favoured shorthand, is everywhere in his pages.

 Unlike some in the Better Together campaign, the former prime minister does not deny or deride the Scottish tradition from which he sprang. He does not waste time on the fatuous notion that there is no important difference in attitudes north and south. He writes instead of ‘Scotland’s deep commitment to social justice, which is not only asserted through our commitment to fairness within Scotland but also in our desire to be an outward-looking nation and good global citizen in a post-imperial world.’

 Brown believes, nevertheless, that another – still another – constitutional rearrangement is required. Each previous offer was presented as the last word on the matter, but the senior voice of Labour in Scotland, at the final hour, speaks again. He has a new contract in hand, one designed to fix a problem that was not supposed to exist. Why – the question is not even slightly serious – now?

 A Holyrood parliament made permanent? Brown seems to think the institution needs protection. Equality as the ‘guiding mission’ of the Union? Apparently some don’t share our ‘deep commitment to social justice’. Enhanced powers for Edinburgh, an end to the House of Lords, devolution all round for the UK? The question is simple and direct: if the need for these reforms is pressing, why did new Labour’s second among equals and paramount Scot not mention them before?

 In his final words, Brown states: ‘I vote for Scotland leading Britain – not leaving it’.

That has a more noble ring, no doubt, than the retort: You had your chance. Labour, Scottish and British, had many chances. One aspect of the fact is that many in its ranks never cared much for home rule, far less for independence, and would still rid themselves of the Holyrood nuisance if they could. As with Brown, the Westminster connection has justified their careers. As with Brown, they cannot conceive of an existence for themselves or their country that does not have London as its terminus and pinnacle.

 The former prime minister traces a family history co-existent with the Union. He comes – and very few do not – from farming stock. That connection was severed, finally, in the middle of the 1930s. Brown’s statement of the fact counts as an inadvertent metaphor: ‘For my family, as for so many, the only connection to the land we once farmed is handed-down memories’. You could say the same – I would say the same – about the husbanding of democratic power in this country. What once was ours was lost. Why not take it back?

 The architect of new Labour would call that unwise in a globalised world, the world that came within hours of collapse when financial systems fell apart. At times, his notion of ‘pooling and sharing’ sounds like a huddling together for little islands too small to cope with a big, dangerous world. Ultimately, nevertheless, his prescriptions for Scotland read like a last attempt to make sense of a career defined by London’s power.

 In the early days of Holyrood, it was common to hear people wondering why so many of Brown’s generation had not the slightest interest in a career in Scotland’s parliament. For them it was, in every sense, subordinate and secondary. The former prime minister has not changed his mind about that. That is, to stretch the word once more, another sort of tragedy.


My Scotland, Our Britain – 

A Future Worth Sharing

Gordon Brown

Simon & Schuster, £20, ISBN 978 1471137488, PP336

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