Gordon Brown’s autobiography will be published next week. Here we reflect on his underrated premiership (2007-2010).
There are almost no towering figures left in British politics. Social media and 24-hour news coverage have reduced most politicians to walking soundbites. True, Jeremy Corbyn has broken the mould with his counter-cultural style, but who else on the political stage is able to show both personality and depth? Answer: not Boris Johnson.
Gordon Brown’s long-awaited premiership, when at last it came in 2007, was regarded by many of its immediate obituarists as a dismal failure. A man who had coveted the premiership for decades had apparently got all the way to the top of the greasy pole only to be found out as “psychologically flawed” (Alastair Campbell’s phrase). During his brief three-year premiership, Brown had overseen the near-collapse of the British economy, whilst stumbling from crisis to crisis with no grand strategic vision to fall back on.
This was viewed by many as particularly tragic due to Brown’s long apprenticeship at the Treasury, and his command and knowledge of the gritty details of politics. It was said at the time that Brown had as great a grasp of the machinery of government as had once been in the hands of William Gladstone. Brown’s premiership was supposed to be more substantial, more radical and more principled than that of his one-time friend, Tony Blair. Instead, in the words of one future architect of austerity, Vince Cable, Brown had gone “from Stalin to Mr. Bean.”
But of course, obituaries written in the immediate aftermath of a political death are almost always short-sighted. Rather than hanging around like a bad smell in the manner of other former prime ministers, Brown chose to depart the main political stage and quietly focus on constituency matters for his last parliament (2010-2015). He raised enormous sums for charity and avoided the ugly spectacle of the obscenely profitable after-dinner-speaking circuit. He chose not to make money out of advising foreign dictators.
Brown respectfully handed over the baton to his successor as leader, Ed Miliband, who singularly failed to defend Labour’s record in office and, in particular, the heroic efforts made by both his predecessor and Alistair Darling to rescue the economy in 2008. But Brown, a Labour Party man to his core, did not want to be a backseat driver, and allowed Miliband to lead unimpeded. In the end, Miliband led Labour to a far worse result than in 2010.
It was not until four years after his removal from office that Brown returned to prominence. As the ‘No’ campaign teetered on the brink of defeat in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, Brown marched back into the centre of political stage with a patriotic appeal that gave even me, an Englishman, a lump in my throat. “At last, the world is hearing the voices of the real people of Scotland. The silent majority will be silent no more”, growled Brown in his magnificent baritone. The nationalist cause was crushed by a single blow from the great clunking fist.
Perhaps Brown would have been more suited to the pre-television era, his voice rolling out from the radio like a distant ocean roar. He never took naturally to the camera, with his ability to look down square the barrel of the camera lens sadly blighted by his half-blindness. But history will be kind to Brown for his astonishing statesmanship in the midst of the global financial crisis. No, he did not “save the world”, as he once mistakenly claimed, but he did lead it away from catastrophe.
Now that Brown is no longer a threat to them, even Brown’s most ardent critics can acknowledge the role he played in those dark days. George Osborne recently admitted not only that Labour did not cause the crash of 2008, but that Brown had shown great leadership in its wake. As Brown laments in his autobiography, he was not given the chance to finish the job. Instead, this task fell to Thatcher’s children, who choked off the recovery for several years until it eventually, belatedly started to improve. As I wrote yesterday, the fragile Tory recovery has come at an enormous social cost which Labour would never have countenanced.
Brown’s premiership was certainly deeply flawed. He did not adjust well to the role of prime minister, and it is probable that his obsession with taking the top job contributed to his failure to do any serious big policy thinking from about 2002 onwards. This meant that by the time he finally replaced Blair, he had run out of steam. But when his country needed him, both when in office in 2008, and when out of office in 2014, he showed a kind of determined leadership which few, if anyone else in British politics, could have mustered. History will be kind to Gordon Brown, but it will mock his cruel detractors