In a new autobiography to be published next week, a decade after he succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister, Brown stands by the approach his government adopted to cushion the economy against the impact of the financial crash, but says he failed to express it powerfully enough to voters.
“I fell short in communicating my ideas. I failed to rally the nation. We won the battle – to escape recession – but we lost the war – to build something better,” Brown writes.
He says today’s politicians, unlike those of the past, are expected to show their feelings and reveal aspects of their personal lives, something he found particularly difficult.
“The modern version of ‘connecting’ seems to increasingly include a public display of emotion, with the latter – authentic or not – seen as evidence of a sincerity required for political success,” he writes. “In a far more touchy-feely era, our leaders speak of public issues in intensely personal ways and assume they can win votes simply by telling their electors that they ‘feel their pain’. For me, being conspicuously demonstrative is uncomfortable,” he writes.
“I am not, I hope, remote, offhand or uncommunicative. But if I wasn’t an ideal fit for an age when the personal side of politics had come to the fore, I hope people will come to understand this was not an aloofness or detachment or, I hope, insensitivity or a lack of emotional intelligence on my part.”
Brown’s discomfort with the personal nature of today’s politics has echoes in some of the criticisms of Theresa May, whose sometimes stilted delivery has seen her branded “Maybot”.
As a politician who was born, as he puts it, “40 years before the world wide web”, Brown expresses bewilderment at the popularity of Twitter and other social media platforms and their pervasiveness in politics.
“The internet often functions like a shouting match without an umpire. Trying to persuade people through social media seems to matter less than finding an echo chamber that reinforces one’s own point of view,” he writes.
“Too often, all we are hearing is the sound of voices like our own. The turnaround is so instantaneous that, for the luxury of sounding off, we often forgo the duty to sit and think. And because differentiation is the name of the political game – showing what divides you from your opponent, not what you have in common – achieving a consensus in a wilderness of silos is difficult, if not impossible.”
Brown, who has long had eye problems caused by a rugby accident when he was a teenager, also reveals that he believed in 2009 that he might be about to lose his sight after doctors discovered that his retina was torn in two places.
“I knew something was wrong. My vision was very foggy,” he writes of waking up one day in Downing Street. He attended an engagement where he spoke off the cuff because he was unable to read his notes and was then driven straight to Moorfields eye hospital. When advised to have surgery he asked for a second opinion, which was that an operation would be too risky. He says he feels “lucky beyond words” that his retina has not deteriorated further.
Brown, who spent years harrying Blair, his long-standing political ally, to hand over the reins, says he remains proud of his record during the financial crisis.“While I did not predict the recession that exploded out of America and infected the world, I did immediately grasp the need to act with unprecedented speed,” he writes.
But he says he regrets not being allowed to finish the job of reforming the economy. “Banking should have been transformed, our international institutions refashioned, inequality radically reversed – and if we are to be properly equipped to face the next crisis this is still the agenda we must pursue.”
David Cameron and his shadow chancellor and political strategist, George Osborne, ran a successful general election campaign in 2010 that pinned the blame for the financial crisis on Labour mismanagement, and the party has struggled to regain its reputation for economic competence since.
He also seeks to reclaim his reputation as a firm enemy of neoliberalism – the set of rightwing economic policies in which some backers of the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, suggest the Blair and Brown governments were complicit.
“Throughout my years in parliament, we were up against what it really meant – to liberalise, privatise, deregulate and tolerate high levels of unemployment as the price for keeping inflation down,” he writes. “In its unbridled form this state-shrinking, taxcutting, freemarket fundamentalism meant, for many people, the pain of unemployment, poverty and being left behind.”
When Brown stood to succeed Blair as Labour leader and prime minister, the only candidate to stand against him was John McDonnell, now the shadow chancellor, who argued Brown was not sufficiently leftwing.
Brown continued to serve as the MP for his home constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath during the Tory-LibDem coalition, but stepped down from parliament before the 2015 general election.
He rarely makes forays into politics, though he did deliver an influential speech urging Scottish voters to reject independence at the referendum in 2014, and has called for radical constitutional reform – with more devolution to Scotland – as a response to the challenges Brexit has created.
Brown’s share of the proceeds from the book, My Life, Our Times, will go to the Jennifer Brown research laboratory at Edinburgh University, set up in memory of the baby daughter he and his wife Sarah lost in 2002.
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