What was it that drove him?

David Runciman

  • My Life, Our Times by Gordon Brown
    Bodley Head, 512 pp, £25.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 1 84792 497 1

Like many recent political memoirists, Gordon Brown begins his story in medias res. Given his rollercoaster time in Downing Street, punctuated by the gut-wrenching drama of the financial crisis, there should have been plenty of arresting moments to choose from. Some, though, are already taken. Alistair Darling, for instance, starts Back from the Brink, his 2011 account of what it was like being Brown’s chancellor, on Tuesday, 7 October 2008, when Sir Tom McKillop, the chairman of RBS, called him to announce that his bank was about to go bust and to ask what the government planned to do about it. ‘It was going to be a bad day,’ Darling says with dry understatement. Brown adopts a different approach. His starting point is Friday, 8 May 2009. He picks it because it was an ordinary day in the life of a prime minister, and he wants us to know how extraordinary that is.

His day starts at 5 a.m., with a spell on the Downing Street treadmill, before arriving at his desk to work on two important speeches he has to give the following week. He went to bed the night before after being told of the death of a British soldier in Afghanistan; now over breakfast, he is informed of the deaths of three more servicemen there in a suicide bombing. ‘I felt nauseous,’ he writes. ‘I thought of the families across Britain … who were about to receive a visit; of the moment when the doorbell rings and they already sense the terrible news they are about to be told.’ He does not have long to dwell on this, however. His morning gets worse when he opens the Daily Telegraph. He is already embroiled in a dispute with the paper over what he sees as its malicious misreporting of his expenses claims. Now he discovers that there is an article by one of his predecessors, John Major, which attacks him in highly personal terms. He decides he must ring the Telegraph’s editor to put the record straight. He has to do this on a train to Bradford, where he is due to unveil a memorial in honour of a local police officer, Sharon Beshenivsky, who was murdered in an armed robbery four years earlier. When the call to the Telegraph comes through he ends up taking it ‘in the cramped space between two carriages that were bouncing up and down as passengers squeezed by on their way to the buffet bar’.

After Bradford, it’s on to Sheffield, where he performs the opening ceremonies for a new academy school and a Sure Start centre, before a visit to a struggling steel business. On the journey home, he gets embroiled in an email exchange with one of his advisers on the never-ending challenge of trying to nail down the peace in Northern Ireland. He also feels he has to respond to an email from Joanna Lumley, badgering him about rights of residence for Gurkhas living in the UK. Back in London he takes calls from foreign leaders about the continuing fallout from the financial crisis, grapples with some of the complexities of the Calman Commission on extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and hosts a strategy session on the forthcoming local and European elections. Before he goes to bed, his speechwriter Kirsty McNeill sends him a copy of a poem to perk him up. It pays tribute to the American baseball star Ted Williams: ‘Watch the ball and do your thing/This is the moment. Here’s your chance/Don’t let anyone mess with your swing.’ He responds gratefully: ‘Brilliant poem. We need a British version of it.’

Brown hopes this picture is enough to give a sense of the unique challenge of being prime minister in the age of 24/7 media communication, facing ‘a weight and breadth of issues that is difficult to comprehend, yet alone control, and a speed at which you have to work and make decisions that almost defies belief’. No one can understand it fully who hasn’t done it. Well, yes and no. Of course it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be told as a regular part of your job that people are dying on your watch. But the rest of it – the lack of headspace, the intrusion of issues that you thought were done for now, the fire-fighting, the press of voices demanding attention – that sounds to me like the life of a professional in the 21st century. We’ve all been there, squeezing out a call in the jostle of the crowded train, wondering whether there’ll ever be time to sit down, never mind wind down. Brown harks back to the age when prime ministers had the leisure to read poetry (Disraeli and Gladstone), write love letters (Asquith) or take morning drinks and afternoon naps (Churchill). I imagine there are lawyers, doctors, accountants, even writers, who feel the same sense of nostalgia for a rhythm of life that’s never coming back. Though he clearly regrets how relentless it was, Brown wants us to know he wasn’t undone by the clamour and that despite all the demands he managed to cope. Indeed, he did more than cope – he thrived. He calls himself ‘the first email prime minister’. Welcome to our world, Gordon.

There is something touching about this solipsism. But there is something disingenuous about it too. The way Brown describes his life leaves him sounding a lot like everyone else at just the points when he wants to insist how different his perspective was. Sometimes the tunnel vision is hilarious. Writing about his experiences in the 1992 election, when Labour under Neil Kinnock snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, he says:

For me, two images stand out from the last few days of the campaign: on the one hand, John Major on a simple wooden soapbox making his final campaign speeches; on the other, Labour’s big-budget triumphalist Sheffield rally that resembled a US-style political convention. With ten thousand party members in attendance, Neil’s human and emotional response to the adoring crowd – ‘We’re alright! We’re alright! We’re alright!’ – came under fire from the right-wing press.

I love that ‘For me …’, with its promise of some special insight. Those are the only two things anyone can remember about that campaign. They are what it’s known for! It’s as though he was watching it on TV like everyone else, rather than being a part of the action. By contrast, it’s at the moments when Brown wants to show us his human side – to let us see that he has his fair share of frailties – that he sounds different from other people. Then there is something missing, an empty space where the real person should be.

Brown presents his greatest failing as his inability to communicate effectively. He thinks he was on top of the rest of the demands of political leadership: the mastery of detail, the hard work, a commitment to the cause and a passionate conviction about what needed to be done. What he lacked was the capacity to bring the British people along with him when he needed them. He would get the policy right, but in his own words that was often at the expense of ‘getting the message across’. As he led the country out of the financial crisis that gripped the world in 2008, this gap was his undoing. ‘My own biggest regret was that in the greatest peacetime challenge – a catastrophic global recession that threatened to become a depression – I failed to persuade the British people that the progressive policies I pushed for, nationally and internationally, were the right and fairest way to respond.’

Sometimes, his sense of regret spills over into absurd levels of self-chastisement. The first email prime minister never got the hang of Twitter, and now he feels that he was negligent in not doing so. He notes that Margaret Thatcher did all right without it – indeed, ‘the very idea that she could have contained her thoughts to 140 characters is preposterous. The Lady was not for tweeting. But I should have been.’ Really? Not only is the thought of Brown tweeting his way to the nation’s hearts during the banking crisis pretty absurd, it’s also a piece of historical revisionism. Twitter only really got going in 2007, the year he became prime minister. Given how busy he was, it would have taken some special prescience to think of this as his means of winning over the public, especially since many of them had little idea of what Twitter was even when he left office three years later. ‘During my time as an MP,’ he writes, ‘I never mastered the capacity to leave a good impression or sculpt my public image in 140 characters.’ As so often in this book, the real message here is the dig at Blair. Unlike Brown, Blair never even mastered email, which left him free to indulge his taste for superficial theatrics. Lucky old Tony didn’t have to grapple with his inbox night and day. If only Gordon had been less diligent in dealing with the issues as they arose, he might have had time to tweet his way out of trouble.

In Brown’s telling, the central challenge in politics comes from the tension between policy and presentation, with the prize going to the person who can master both. By implication, Blair was presentation without the policy, whereas with Brown it was the other way round – preferable, though still not enough. But this analysis won’t do. In fact, it is nonsense. It leaves out the thing that makes politics politics. Along with policy and presentation there is power, or to put it more bluntly, brute force. Sometimes, in order to get people to do what you want, it is necessary to coerce them. Reading this book, you would never know this was an option. It isn’t that Brown denies that it happens. He describes plenty of moments when people use communication to bully, threaten and coerce, rather than to persuade. It’s just that when this happens, it is being done to him. It is never being done by him.

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