As a political leader, Gordon Brown came close to being a great man.
He had – still has – brains, energy and high moral seriousness, all in greater quantities than Tony Blair, his protege, friend and deadly rival, who made him wait a decade for the premiership Brown wrongly thought his by right of succession. But insecurities that trigger debilitating suspicion and indecision can derail even the most formidable careers.
As chancellor, later prime minister, Brown achieved some lasting and important things between 1997 and 2010, while failing gallantly in pursuit of others, including the ending of child and pensioner poverty in Britain. When he belatedly joined the no campaign in September’s Scottish referendum – refusing to cooperate with the cross-party campaign in favour of his “Gordon to the rescue” trope – he improvised one of the finest speeches of his career.
Few will blame Brown for wanting to step down next May – if he eventually confirms the reports in the Sunday Mirror (radio silence on Sunday) that he plans to go. He is 64 and has done his national service, taking a pounding (not least from himself, one suspects) for the crumbling of his career under the immense pressure of the financial crisis.
Though he may not have “saved the world” as he accidentally said, his clarity of analysis – the urgent need to recapitalise the stricken banks – made a major contribution. In effect, he helped save the bankers from their own excesses and venality, naively permitted on his watch. He was not alone in that failing, George Osborne and David Cameron egged him on until after the crash, but he took more than his share of the blame. Had chancellor Brown’s reorganisation of bank regulation in 1997 proved wanting in the crisis? Yes, but the US Fed and European Central Bank (ECB) did no better.
The indictment goes on. Did he not borrow too much in the boom? Yes, but so did everyone. Did he not sell Britain’s gold reserves for a weak price? Yes, but Ken Clarke thinks he was right in principle: gold is a fetish. Yet Brown was also the chancellor whose “five tests” kept Britain out of the ill-designed and poorly managed eurozone, now back in recession. He gets little credit for that either – or for finding the extra billions that greatly expanded the NHS’s capacity and competence after 2002.
Before moving next door in 2007 Brown had a good run as chancellor, building on the Clarke-Lamont foundations after sterling’s Black Wednesday expulsion from the EU’s exchange rate mechanism (ERM) in 1992. He too had backed ERM membership, but blamed John Major as fast as Osborne would later blame him. As John Smith’s shadow chancellor – again as a disciplined chancellor in 1997-99 – he stood firm against high spending and believed it cost him the leadership when Smith dropped dead in 1994.
In truth his “lightweight” lieutenant, Blair, was the brilliant retail politician who swept Labour to three election victories, as even Scots Labour MPs realised. If Brown and Blair had been able to cooperate better, pooled their talents, Blair might have gone sooner and Brown’s 2007 inheritance provided more continuity and fulfilment, less borrowing as the frothy boom climaxed. Despite his barely challenged “coronation” and deft early months, Brown allowed election speculation to build up -– as Jim Callaghan did in 1978 – only to bottle it when Osborne’s inheritance tax gambit called his bluff in October. Try as he did, his authority never recovered.
Busy with his global role, pursuing his goals like a latter-day David Livingstone (a childhood hero in his father’s manse) , Brown may yet do more useful work. Voters can and should regret his going, but modern politicians do not hang about to guide their successors: at 54, William Hague is off too.
What was it that made Brown such a brooding colleague in cabinet (reading his briefs while others spoke) when he could be so charming? What made him undermine Blair and Peter Mandelson, whom he brought back in later desperation? Why did the high-minded son of the manse allow Damian McBride, his clever, devious spin doctor, to go rogue?
Some speak of an over-demanding father (“whatever Gordon achieves wouldn’t satisfy his dad”), others of the trauma of teenage near-blindness in that rugby accident. There was always a lot of caution in his calculation, he usually moved slowly. Psychologists, historians, baffled colleagues will ponder it all. With their awareness of the hubristic flaws gods give mere mortals, the ancient Greeks might have understood more easily.
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