Gordon Brown recently rang a confidant.
He was angry, and no one gets angry quite like Gordon Brown. Having played a widely admired role in saving the union at the climactic stage of the Scottish referendum campaign, the former prime minister had been whipped up into one of his furies by signs that the Tories were trying to renege on the “vow” to devolve more power to Edinburgh. Brown raged down the line: “Cameron has betrayed me!” The friend, who had often before heard his old boss roar in a similar way, especially about Tony Blair, couldn’t help laughing: “Well, what did you expect?”
Many political epitaphs have been written since Brown’s announcement that he is standing down as an MP at the next election. Friends have talked about his large mind and formidable will. Foes have focused on his brutishness to colleagues and volcanic temper. Anecdotes have been told about the warm and witty Gordon and the paranoid and bullying Brown. The creative and destructive components are all dimensions of one of the most complex people to occupy high office in Britain.
One thing that has been missed is the naivety that he sometimes displayed. It was in play when the evil entered into the relationship between him and Blair. We will never be sure what they said to each other back in 1994 when they met at a restaurant in Islington to finalise the terms on which Brown would not contest for the leadership. I’ve always thought it plausible that Blair led the other man to believe that he wouldn’t do it for more than 10 years because that would have seemed like a very distant prospect at the time. Brown’s naivety was in thinking that such a promise was bankable. “Tony gave away far too much and Gordon wanted to believe it too much,” someone close to Brown once told me. “The history of the rest of their relationship is Tony trying to claw it back and Gordon trying to hang on to it.”
The history of their relationship was also the history of New Labour. Repudiated by the party’s current leader, and now badmouthed by Conservatives who were once awed and crushed, it is worth recalling that the New Labour years were the longest period of non-Tory government since 1762. Blair’s artfulness at positioning, allied with his capacity to charm middle Britain, was key to New Labour’s 1997 landslide and the repeat of the feat in 2001. But also crucial was the skill with which Brown allayed the public’s distrust by recasting economic policy while still leaving Labour the space to pursue social democratic goals.
We forget now what a dramatic coup it was, and how important to building early confidence in Labour as a government, when he handed control over interest rates to the Bank of England, one of his enduring legacies. When the public turned sour on Blair in the aftermath of the Iraq war, a booming economy insulated the government from discontent and helped secure a third victory in 2005. It was the only Labour government to win three consecutive terms – by retaining the confidence of the voters and the financial markets while pouring unprecedented sums into revitalised public services and redistributing from the wealthy to the poor.
Of course, the Great Crash and ensuing austerity has put those years of plenty in harsher perspective. Brown flirted with hubris, and invited punishment by nemesis, when he frequently proclaimed the “end of boom and bust”. He became seduced by his own propaganda. What began as a slogan to taunt the Tories turned into a belief that he had somehow transcended the business cycle.
The first leg of his spending increases was not excessive and was what New Labour had been elected to do: to repair the underinvestment in health, education and other public services of the Thatcher-Major years. It proved so popular that the Tories, whatever they say now, felt intellectually defeated to such an extent that they meekly signed up for it – as they also signed up for the more questionable second surge, which took spending up at a rate which was dramatic in both a historical and international context.
It is no coincidence that Brown turned the spending taps on to full in 2007 when he thought he would finally prise the prime ministership out of Blair’s grasp. During their long years of uncivil war, I often wrote about how the toxic feuding was debilitating New Labour, consuming far too much of the energies of its leading personalities and preventing it from fulfilling its potential to be a transforming government. Some people suggested that it could not be as appalling as I described it. With the benefit of hindsight, and all the memoirs and diaries published since, it is now widely accepted that nearly everyone underestimated how atrocious it got.
Brown’s temperament first became the subject of public debate when I revealed in January 1998 that someone very senior at No 10 had described the chancellor as a man with “psychological flaws”. The remark was, in some ways, unfair. Many politicians could hardly be described as normal. The person who said it had psychological flaws himself. The remark stuck to Brown because his traits came in such vivid colours and had such a serious impact on New Labour. When Blair and Brown were working in harmony and synergising their respective talents, they proved to be a hugely powerful and productive combination. When they were at war, it paralysed the government.
There was fault on both sides of the rivalry, but the root cause of it was Brown’s consuming ambition to supplant his next door neighbour. It is extraordinary that he was allowed to use the clout of the Treasury to run what was in effect a government within a government – and, increasingly, an opposition within a government. Though there was some ideological content to the bitter battles between them, the root cause of it all was Brown’s thirst for Blair’s job. Sir Steve Robson, a senior Treasury official who admired Brown, once told me: “Gordon would take an opposing view simply to bugger up Tony. Arguments would go on and on and on.” It is extraordinary to reflect that the chancellor would simply refuse to tell the prime minister what was going to be in the budget and that the PM would be reduced, in front of witnesses, to pleading: “Give us a hint, Gordon.”
The great irony is that, when his long campaign of destabilisation finally succeeded in levering out Blair, Brown found that the skill-set for being an admired chancellor is not the same as that for being a successful prime minister. He muffed his chance to exploit his honeymoon and get a mandate of his own when he bottled calling an election in 2007. I thought then, and still think, that he would have won. So do many Lib Dems and Tories.
From then on, it was a long and agonising slide to defeat, punctuated by serial crises and abortive coup attempts against him. His raging moods, which friends had previously excused on the grounds that they were an expression of his frustration at not being prime minister, became darker once he was inside No 10. The temper tantrums, while unpleasant for those within hurling range of mobile phones and coffee mugs, were not the fundamental problem. Put simply, he was overwhelmed by the job. It was only after he had killed Blair that some of his acolytes appreciated why New Labour had needed both of them.
I’m not sure he ever entirely got it, but in moments of reflection he would lament that he was not “a politician for the television age”. He got to live out his nightmare and joined the sad ranks of those also-ran prime ministers who have followed a very dominant occupant of No 10.
It is notable that his finest moment came when he could, in effect, go back to being chancellor. In fact, he could be chancellor of the world. Colleagues and civil servants who were otherwise in despair with him were dazzled by his response to the financial crisis.
It can be said that he was one of the authors of the crisis, and it’s a point, that he didn’t save the world alone – which is true enough – and that others would have got there in the end, which might be right. But the big point is that he was the first western leader to grasp that a cataclysmic meltdown of the world’s financial system could be prevented only by a massive recapitalisation of the banks. It required both a brilliant grasp of the detail and the guts to take a huge political risk to lead the way.
So who was Gordon Brown? His party’s longest-serving and most successful chancellor, who was instrumental to the triumphs of New Labour and saved the world during the banking crisis? Or a man consumed by a thwarted and destructive ambition to become prime minister who, when he finally won the prize, couldn’t cope with it? He was both.
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