What was it that drove him?
- 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.
His main grievance is against the Murdoch press, which hounded him during the latter part of his tenure as chancellor and throughout his time as prime minister. Some of this, of course, also relates to his struggles with Blair. When John Smith died in 1994, and Brown reluctantly decided to step aside to allow Blair to take the crown, it was partly because ‘the Murdoch press were all backing Tony … writing [him] up as the only moderniser. It was wholly unfair but predictable.’ Brown feared that if he took Blair on he would give the papers an excuse to lambast him as the anti-moderniser and to present Labour as split. But their later persecution of him went well beyond stirring up internal party divisions. It was deeply personal and it was also, as Brown puts it, ‘overtly political’. His tax returns were stolen, his medical records were hacked, police officers were bribed for access to the details they held on him. The Sun in particular, under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks, made repeated intrusions into his private life in order to get him on the back foot. Brown calls it ‘a direct attempt to distort and suborn the policy of the government’. He accepts that the Tory press was always likely to be hostile, and that criticism of his policy positions was inevitable. What he cannot accept is that they used such strong-arm methods to try to get their way. This was not an attempt to communicate an alternative point of view. It was simply bullying.
But it wasn’t just the press. Someone else who Brown felt had a habit of playing politics when he shouldn’t was the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King. Throughout the financial crisis, Brown believed that King went beyond his remit in permitting his political views – particularly what Brown calls ‘his personal attitude to debt’ – to interfere with his policy role. He allowed himself to become a ‘public commentator’, he ‘pontificated’, he was ‘excessively political’. King repeated the affront in 2010, when he gave advice to the Liberal Democrats during the coalition negotiations that clearly favoured the Tory position on the urgency of adopting an austerity programme. ‘Mervyn King,’ Brown writes, ‘failed to understand the limits of his unelected position.’ His job as governor was to provide factual advice in relation to fiscal matters. He ended up pushing for a particular course of action, based on exaggerated claims of what might happen if it was not followed. It was not exactly bullying. But it did come in the form of a threat – do this, or the economy gets it.
Brown’s complaints seem entirely justified. The behaviour of the Murdoch press was monstrous. The Bank of England under King did have ideas above its station. Brown certainly had a much better financial crisis than the Bank did. But what will not wash is the other side of the story: Brown’s suggestion that he never fought back in kind. He says nothing about how he responded to press intrusion or attempts by unelected officials to stray into his territory. Indeed, he goes out of his way to say that ‘I did not do a Harold Wilson and publicly criticise Mervyn, even when on further occasions he volunteered advice on our fiscal policy.’ All he will say is that he called him in for a private chat, and reminded him of their understanding ‘that I would not comment on monetary policy and he would refrain from weighing in on fiscal policy’. As a result, ‘Mervyn promised not to intervene again.’ Then, three months later, he went back on his word. Policy and promises, either kept or broken. That, according to this account, is all politics is.
As a result, the book is full of gaping holes where the actual politics should be. Repeatedly Brown’s descriptions of events make little sense because he doesn’t give us so much as a hint of the coercive menace that lay behind them. For instance, he describes the Blair government’s response to the fuel blockade in 2000 as a victory for his principled position that ‘whatever we did had to be justifiable on wider policy grounds.’ He makes no mention of Blair’s threat to deploy the army, or the fear that gripped the government when the situation seemed to be running out of control. His discussion of his own decision in 2007 to shirk a general election, which gave him a reputation for cowardice he was never able to shake off, is presented as an accident of miscommunication. He was, he says, too busy with the policy challenges he faced in his early days as prime minister to pay much attention to the question of whether he could beat the Tories in a snap election. ‘I was handed some polling,’ he recalls, ‘but because I was not planning an election I did not study it in any detail.’ Of course he didn’t. It’s as though the central motif of his political career – his ability to look for weakness on the other side and exploit it – was simply an invention of the dishonest media. He takes full responsibility for his failure to dampen down the speculation that an election might be coming, but again this is held up as evidence of his being preoccupied with substance when a more adept politician might have paid more attention to the froth. The thought that battering the Tories into submission was part of his calculations is never entertained.
Perhaps the most jarring example is his description of what happened after Alistair Darling gave an interview to the Guardian in August 2007 at the start of the financial crisis, in which he described it as the gravest economic threat facing the country for sixty years. ‘He was absolutely right,’ Brown says, ‘but he wrong-footed us because he was interpreted as singling out a peculiarly British problem. When we later talked by the phone, he and I were agreed that we had to emphasise the reality that the roots and failures were worldwide.’ That’s it: message squared, policy intact. Compare this to Darling’s own account of what happened next.
It was the briefing machine at Number Ten, and Gordon’s attack dogs, who fed the story and kept it running. I later described it as being like ‘the forces of hell’ being unleashed on me … For days after the Guardian piece ran, journalists told us they were repeatedly being told that I had made a hash of it … At the time, what I didn’t know was that … Gordon had told journalists that we would see an economic recovery within six months … If I had known that Gordon believed that economic recovery lay around the corner – if he’d told me, his chancellor, this – then we could have had a discussion about it. The problem was that he clearly did not trust my advice, and now he appeared indifferent to what I thought … Systematic anonymous briefing from people you have known for years, and who are supposed to be on your side, is deeply unpleasant. Living next door to it – literally – was all the harder. I was reminded of the words Henry II uttered about Thomas à Becket: ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest.’ He didn’t order his knights to go and kill Becket, but they believed they had his blessing to do so.
Now that sounds like politics.
Brown has little to say about his attack dogs, Damian McBride and Charlie Whelan. McBride, who nearly destroyed Brown’s premiership when he had to resign in 2009 after one dirty trick too far, gets a minor telling off here for ‘repeating gossip that had no basis in fact’, but a bigger chit for subsequently writing a ‘very honest and penitent book blaming only himself for what he called “the power trip” he had been on’. So that’s all right then: it was a personal error of judgment on McBride’s part to think that power was the name of the game. Where can he have got that impression? His real job was meant to be helping Brown present his policy positions more persuasively. When things go wrong, it’s because the persuasion didn’t work as it should. Of tax credits, which Brown devised partly to aid his project of more extensive and efficient redistribution and partly to make sure the Tories couldn’t use taxation as another stick to beat him with, he says ‘our problem was not, in the end, a failure of policy … as on many other occasions, there was a failure in presentation.’ But this doesn’t take into account that tax credits were also meant to be a useful weapon in his own political arsenal. The trouble he got into – in his last budget as chancellor in 2007 he cut the basic rate of income tax from 22 per cent to 20 and increased tax credits, paying for the changes by abolishing the starting rate of 10 per cent, which caused many Labour supporters to lose out – came about because he didn’t want to give up tax credits as a stick he could use on other people, both inside and outside the Parliamentary Labour Party. Brown writes only that ‘the tax issue remained a potent weapon in our opponents’ hands,’ as though they were playing one game and he was playing another. But they were all playing politics.
The same lacuna is there in his description of his many successes. One of the running sores in his relationship with Blair was the issue of the euro, which Blair wanted to join – seeing it as a crucial part of his legacy – and Brown didn’t. As chancellor Brown devised five tests which would have to be passed if his doubts were to be overcome. This was an eminently sensible policy position and Brown was right to stick to it. At one point in 2003 it was floated to him that if he would soften his stance Tony might be willing to hand over the leadership sooner rather than later. But that wasn’t the business Brown was in. ‘I was adamant: I would not put what I considered to be the national economic interest second to my own political interest.’ Instead, he commissioned a massive Treasury study which showed that four of the five tests hadn’t been met. ‘The document and its appendices were so heavy that they had to be walked over to Number Ten by Treasury messengers.’ Nothing threatening about that. Brown then ensured that all members of the cabinet were supplied with 18 separate studies of the euro question to ‘inform their discussions’. He held meetings with each of them individually to explain what these studies meant. When the cabinet met to resolve the issue on 5 June, it was unanimous in deciding that ‘membership of the euro was not right for Britain at this time.’ Brown wants us to see that it was simply the weight of evidence that told. But I suspect it was a pretty bruising experience for those on the receiving end. The weight of evidence can beat you up too.
Brown just will not accept that politics sometimes enters into politics. He says he was reluctant to nationalise Northern Rock because it would have meant a very bad deal for the British taxpayer. He doesn’t admit that he was terrified of anything that might look like a reversion to the bad old days of socialism. When he agreed before the 2010 election to take part in the televised leaders debates, it was because ‘I thought it right that the country hear the arguments debated through TV questioning.’ He also felt it would help level the playing field, since the Tories had more money to spend on advertising and this was free publicity. What he won’t say is that he was desperate, a long way behind in the polls, and willing to roll the dice. Yet that’s where he was. At times his desire to avoid creating the impression that he was politically calculating is so calculating as to be excruciating. When he recounts the fateful moment during the campaign that he was caught on mic disparaging a voter in Rochdale called Gillian Duffy who had pressed him on the question of immigration, he admits: ‘I made the mistake of describing Mrs Duffy as a “sort of bigoted woman”. It was a remark born of frustration that the next day’s media coverage would not be about our policing policies.’ It may seem like a small point, but by placing the quote marks there he changes the sense of what he said. It implies he thought she was somewhat bigoted. Yet he actually sounded like he was calling her the kind of bigot he knew all too well. It’s a tiny detail, and it makes all the difference.
It is tempting to look to Brown’s upbringing for clues to the origins of this quirk in his character: that despite all his political gifts, his political passion and his political determination, he could never quite own up to what it was that drove him. His childhood was unremarkable in many respects. Indeed, it was exceptional only in being so middling: ‘A middle-class upbringing in middle Scotland in the middle of the century,’ is the way he describes it. What made it distinctive, however, was that Scotland back then could be described as ‘the most religious country in the world’, and Brown’s father was a minister. He says little about the impact this had on him and almost nothing about his own religious beliefs. He just took it for granted. A bigger influence seems to have come from being one of three brothers. He was particularly drawn to his older brother, John, who blazed a trail for him in journalism, in the media and in political campaigning. The boys worked together on a student newspaper and in student politics. His younger brother, Andrew, took time out from his own media career to work as an adviser to Gordon when he first became an MP.
These were the relationships he cherished: permanent bonds with people who will look out for you regardless. The ones he mistrusted were those based on happening to find yourself in the right place at the right time: he hated the idea that you had to be in the know to get ahead. Or rather, he hated the idea that others might be in the know while he was in the dark. The formative experience of his early years was the rugby accident that cost him the sight of one eye and nearly left him completely blind. When he originally went to see his GP, it was recommended he go to a private consultant to get it checked out. The doctor in question couldn’t see him for five months, and during that time Brown’s eye deteriorated beyond the point where surgery would be successful. ‘Ironically,’ he writes, ‘I could have gone right away to an eye consultant at my local hospital; but not knowing my way round the NHS at the time I simply took the advice of the GP who directed me to his consultant friend. It would be the last time I would ever go private.’ Brown had learned his lesson. Go to the place where they have to look after you. Make sure you know your way around. And God bless the NHS.
If there is a theme to his early political progress it is that he sought out bands of brothers with whom he could work and from whom he could draw the support he needed as he took the next step. He found a version of this when working as a producer at Scottish Television (‘prompted by ever generous friends Russell Galbraith, Bob Cuddihy and Ken Vass’) and again in getting selected as parliamentary candidate for Dunfermline East (thanks to his ‘great friend Jim McIntyre’ and a group of young shop stewards from the Rosyth Dockyard, who ‘included Charlie Boyle, Helen Dowie, Jimmy Dyce, Charlie Logan, Margaret Logan, Bert Lumsden, George Manclark, Derek Stubbs, Peter Young and also Alex Falconer’). As this shows, they didn’t all have to be men, but usually they were. There is no doubt that Brown tried to re-create these bonds with groups of personal allies throughout his political career, and he often succeeded. His closest colleagues from his time at the Treasury, including Geoffrey Robinson, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, remained remarkably loyal.
But there was, inevitably, a downside. The higher he rose, the more political these friendships became. Being part of Gordon’s band was not a costless enterprise – it deeply alienated the people who weren’t. Moreover, the laddish culture these tight-knit groups engendered was a hostage to fortune, as McBride and Whelan, among others, discovered. Finally, and crucially, there was one relationship that didn’t ultimately work on this fraternal model. Brown’s very first friendship in the Commons was with Tony Blair. But it never successfully extended beyond the two of them. And it never gave Brown the support he needed. He provided the leg-up to his friend, not the other way round. He never got over it. When he writes about Blair in this book the emotion is still clearly raw. He feels he was jilted. But he doesn’t come over like a rejected lover. He sounds like a disappointed older brother.
When you are surrounded by people on whom you can instinctively rely, it is possible to feel that politics is primarily about loyalty, not coercion. If some of them go too far in making the case for the things you believe, well that’s just enthusiasm, not malice. Brown is very conscious that something needs to supply the enthusiasm in politics, in a world where religion no longer does. It is striking, for all his angst about Twitter and 24/7 news cycles, that the biggest change he observes over his lifetime is ‘the scale and speed of the collapse in religious adherence’. He quotes Charles Taylor, who argues that we now live in a world where ‘faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.’ Brown also cites with approval John Rawls’s notion of the ‘overlapping consensus’. He summarises it as follows:
No matter how strongly felt your religious beliefs, you cannot justify your case for action purely on the grounds of faith, and you have to accept that your views are more likely to command authority in the eyes of non-believers because they are supported by logic, evidence and an appeal to shared values … You have to argue your case in the public square, submit to scrutiny, acknowledge alternative points of view – and live with the outcome even if your point of view loses out.
It’s a noble ideal. But as Rawls’s critics have never tired of pointing out, it leaves out the coercive aspect of politics, which is what makes the public square possible in the first place. Rawls was a philosopher, so if he wanted to leave out the dark side of politics that was his business. But Brown was prime minister. And however hard he tried to persuade himself that he was living up to this ideal, he didn’t manage it.
For that, we should be grateful. The great test of Brown’s career was the financial crisis, and it brought out his qualities as a politician. These were not his powers of reasonable persuasion. They were his grit, his forcefulness and, frankly, his ingrained suspicion that other people might be taking him for a ride. In this case, a paranoid prime minister was just what was needed, because it was the banks’ attempt to bury the bad news on their balance sheets that threatened to crash the whole system. Once Brown got past his hope that things might be turned around in six months, he started rattling the bankers’ cages to find out what they were hiding. When they told him their problems were merely ones of liquidity, he refused to believe them. He insisted that the real problems were structural. If they needed a name for it, he had one: ‘Greed’. Brown saw early on that he would have to be blunt: NO LIQUIDITY WITHOUT RECAPITALISATION was the message he wrote on a memo in his thick felt-tip pen. As he says: ‘It didn’t have the elegance of “No taxation without representation”, but it would do.’ It was Brown who got his fellow world leaders to recognise that it would take a huge concerted effort to stave off disaster. When he gathered the members of the G20 for an emergency meeting in London in April 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy complained that the global economy was still in meltdown and ‘none of us has a plan.’ ‘Gordon has a plan,’ Obama chipped in helpfully. The rest of them followed it, not because Brown reasoned them round, but because by this point they were as scared shitless as he was.
To Brown’s great frustration, though he could get his fellow leaders to sign up to an emergency rescue for the banking system, he couldn’t get them to address the structural problems that lay behind the crisis. He had hoped this would be the first step in a concerted international effort to tackle global poverty, climate change and other deep-seated challenges. But in the global public square, once the fear had dissipated, no one was listening anymore. Without the air of menace that hung over the G20 in 2009, Gordon’s wider plans failed to impress themselves on the others. He tries to convince himself that the cause is not lost and that what was achieved at the depths of the crisis still remains as ‘a model, a way of working together, that could shape global financial co-operation to prevent and deal with crises in the future’. But you feel he knows that what he achieved was probably the limit of what he could have achieved. He ends his account of these tumultuous events with a defiant echo of what he said when he quoted his old school motto outside Number Ten on his first day as prime minister: ‘I had done my best.’
The other great crisis that suited Brown’s political temperament was the one that hit long after he had quit Downing Street. He played a vital role in preventing the break-up of the UK, when his tireless and passionate interventions in the Scottish independence referendum campaign helped shore up support for the Union among wavering Scots. His arguments were built on the idea that Scottish patriotism could be accommodated within the Union, but only if it was respected as distinctively Scottish. Uniquely among leading pro-Union politicians, Brown saw that the Scots should not be told what they ought to do. Instead of being told, they needed to be heard. He pushed hard for Westminster politicians to make far bigger concessions to Scottish wishes to have more control over their own affairs. His speeches worked not because he had the best arguments, but because he understood the frustrations of his audience. He was as aggrieved by the cack-handedness of the Better Together campaign as they were. Brown repeatedly warned Cameron and Osborne that Project Fear wouldn’t work, and that only Project Supplication (in the form of a promise to devolve more powers, finally made in the week before the vote) would salvage the situation. He was right. The proof came two years later, when Cameron and Osborne persisted with Project Fear right up to the bitter end of the Brexit campaign, and lost it.
In a book notably devoid of incidental details, one exception is Brown’s vivid account of the speech he gave in Maryhill 24 hours before the final vote in the Scottish referendum. It was probably the best speech of his life, even though – or perhaps precisely because – he had to cut his usual 45-minute stump address down to 13 minutes to fit a very tight schedule. Moments before he was due to go on, someone whispered in his ear: ‘Your right shoe is covered in mud.’ Brown managed to delay his entrance just long enough to allow a frantic aide to claw off the mud with a paper towel, while Eddie Izzard introduced him from the stage. That uncharacteristically jaunty little anecdote, with its combination of gentle name-dropping and clumsy high jinks, shows how much Brown still treasures the memory. The speech ended with his plea to the crowd: ‘Tell them this is our Scotland.’ He was speaking for them, not to them, and both he and they relished the fact.
What makes it more poignant is that it comes in a book dominated by memories of speeches that were far less successful. Indeed, a persistent theme of this memoir is that Brown usually put far more into his speeches than he ever got back. It was not for want of trying. As he says when describing his typical day as PM, one reason he needed to be at his desk so early that morning was because ‘a speech for me was usually the culmination of a hundred drafts, constantly rewritten, updated and refined.’ A hundred? If that’s even half true, it goes beyond diligence and comes close to OCD. It is painful to think of him endlessly trying to find the form of words that would nail the case he was trying to make, and never quite getting there. This quixotic attachment to the pursuit of the decisive public argument cost him dear.
He knows it. When John Smith died in 1994, he spent too long working on his obituary in the hours after the death was announced (‘I wanted to do his life and achievements justice’), allowing Blair to steal a vital march on him in the more important business of politicking for the succession. Brown then compounded the mistake two days after Smith was buried.
I made my speech in honour of him at the Welsh Labour conference in Swansea in which I set out a vision of a party awash with ideas, vibrant with dynamism and purpose, that would reform the welfare state and appeal beyond our heartlands. It did not make the impact with the media that I had hoped. I had an agreement with Tony that we would not attack each other’s speeches, but a briefing went around that I had made my appeal to what an unidentified briefer termed – without a hint of irony – ‘forces of darkness’ within the party.
As he admits when discussing another speech that really did make a difference: ‘Not all speeches matter.’ The irony here, though, is that the speech in question was not one of Brown’s but one by John Prescott, delivered in defence of Smith’s fraught attempt to get one member, one vote past the unions at the Labour Conference. If Prescott wrote more than one draft, never mind one hundred, it would be a surprise. The speech worked for the same reason Brown’s Scotland speeches worked: it wasn’t the preparation, or the argument, or the diligence, but the sense of identity. Prescott won over his audience despite (or more likely because of) all the bluster and brinkmanship. He convinced them he wasn’t speaking to them, never mind at them. He was speaking with them.
It’s not just the speeches. One of the surprises of this book is just how many other books Brown has written. I had no idea. Whenever his political career hits a slow patch, his impulse is to churn out another volume of well-intentioned, earnest prose. Courage (2007), Britain’s Everyday Heroes (2007), The Change We Choose (2010), Beyond the Crash (2010) – for a busy prime minister, that’s a lot of book writing. Even Gladstone and Disraeli would be impressed by the industry, though presumably a little embarrassed by the quality. The persistent impression Brown gives is of a man who doesn’t know when to stop digging with his pen, looking for gold.
Is Brown’s tale ultimately a tragic one, as is sometimes supposed? Was he undone by some fatal flaw? I don’t think so. His story is a political one. Like many dominant politicians, he had the strength of his weaknesses and the weaknesses of his strengths. Though it is said that all political lives end in failure, that’s not really true either. They end in politics. Brown’s paranoia, which served him so well in the depths of the financial crisis, let him down over Iraq. He writes that he should have been more suspicious of the intelligence the British government was being fed by the Americans. But he couldn’t afford to be. He was, in 2002, already fighting Blair on a number of fronts – ‘the euro, the NHS, tuition fees’ are the ones he lists – and ‘rightly or wrongly, I was anxious to avoid a fourth area of dispute, particularly one that was not my departmental responsibility.’ So he shirked it, unlike Robin Cook, who showed what could be known about what was not known at the time. Brown now feels that ‘we were all misled on the existence of WMDs.’ In fact, he is convinced that the Bush administration duped them: ‘Somewhere in the American system the truth about Iraq’s lack of weapons was known.’ But being paranoid after the event is no good to anyone.
Brown also misjudged the coalition negotiations in 2010. Though he lost the election, he thought the Lib Dems were far closer to Labour on most policy questions than they were to the Tories. He genuinely believed it ought to have been possible to put together a stop-the-Tories coalition, given that a significant majority of the electorate had voted for what he saw as parties of the centre-left. So if Clegg wasn’t willing to deal with him, it must have been because he was a secret Tory all along. He wasn’t; he was just a realist, and after three years of Brown he knew the country needed a change. Brown warned him that if he got into bed with Cameron he would regret it. ‘The Tories will destroy you, I said. And they will pull us all apart on Europe.’ Brown was right about that. In politics it is possible to be right and wrong at the same time.
This is a strange book, but it captures what makes Brown such a distinctive politician. Reading it is an authentic experience, full of contradictions. Some of the writing is utterly pedestrian, but some of it is compelling, and more. I was moved to tears by Brown’s account of the death of his baby daughter, Jennifer, at one week old.
She was baptised on the Sunday in her cot in the Royal Infirmary ward … I held Jennifer in my arms – her beautiful face still unaffected, untouched by the scale of the tragedy that had befallen her. Sarah and I took our vows as parents to do everything to bring her up ‘in the nurture and admonition of the Lord’. The baptism was for us not just a comfort or a ritual: it was a recognition that every single life, even the shortest one, had a purpose and every person is irreplaceable. The Saturday, Sunday and Monday were essentially a vigil. We spent Jennifer’s last nights taking it in turns to be at her bedside and sleeping next door in a room set aside for parents of critically ill children. There was nursing help to ensure Jennifer had no pain or suffering. We were with her all Monday afternoon as her life ebbed away. We held her in our arms as she died at 5 p.m.
Then, on the same page, he writes of his gratitude to Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail and Piers Morgan of the Daily Mirror for their help in sparing them from the intrusions of the press during that dreadful time. ‘We remain grateful to this day.’ Oh, that band of brothers.