My Life, Our Times by Gor­don Brown

Re­mote and off­hand, but also af­fect­ingly hu­man. The for­mer PM in his own words

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - David Hare

Re­tired politi­cians are gen­er­ally more at­trac­tive than prac­tis­ing ones. They can no longer do any harm. When fall­ing from the heights of power, it re­quires an ex­tra­or­di­nary cara­pace of con­ceit to ac­quire no sym­pa­thy or grav­ity on the way down. In my life­time, per­haps only Henry Kissinger has achieved it. Even Ge­orge W Bush, the 43rd pres­i­dent of the United States, is be­gin­ning to ap­pear 1% more for­giv­able when viewed along­side the 45th, es­pe­cially when it be­came known that af­ter his suc­ces­sor’s in­au­gu­ra­tion speech in Jan­uary, Bush had been driven to re­mark: “That was some weird shit.” Gor­don Brown’s naked sense of griev­ance once blinded the elec­torate to his virtues as prime min­is­ter. Now, in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, it seems al­most en­dear­ing. We are at last free to smile where once we groaned.

It is nec­es­sary for Brown’s strat­egy to pre­tend that he has writ­ten My Life, Our Times re­luc­tantly. He in­sists he has once more been dragged into the lime­light against his wishes. Over and again he stresses how pri­vate he is, how out of sym­pa­thy with what he calls “pub­lic dis­plays of emo­tion” in a “touchy-feely era”. “For me, be­ing con­spic­u­ously demon­stra­tive is un­com­fort­able – to the point where it has taken me years, de­spite the urg­ing of friends, to turn to writ­ing this book.” And yet once Brown man­ages, ap­par­ently in spite of him­self, to set­tle his nerves, there is no mis­tak­ing the rel­ish with which the large build­ing bricks of his rep­u­ta­tion are, one by one, slid into place to con­sol­i­date the Brow­n­ian view of his­tory. Yes, Tony Blair did go back on his prom­ise that Brown could be­come prime min­is­ter at some point in Blair’s sec­ond term. No, he and Blair weren’t per­ma­nently at log­ger­heads. No, pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships were not a mis­take. Yes, he saved Bri­tain from mem­ber­ship of the euro. No, Iraq wasn’t his fault. Yes, he al­ways fully funded the mil­i­tary in Afghanistan. Yes, he did in­deed call the world’s lead­ers to­gether in 2009 to im­ple­ment a plan of his own de­vis­ing which di­rectly saved the global econ­omy.

Al­though you may find Brown’s neu­rotic in­sis­tence on his fault­less record a touch hu­mor­ous, it’s also true that a politi­cian, even an ex-politi­cian, who can see that the over­rid­ing is­sue in the early part of his ca­reer was the de­cline of Bri­tain, but that to­day it has be­come the sur­vival of Bri­tain, is al­ready miles ahead of any­one you can name in of­fice at West­min­ster. Brown thinks, and thinks pro­foundly. And by and large, over the last 30 years, what he has thought has turned out to be cor­rect. Un­like our present lead­ers, he truly un­der­stands how deep is the alien­ation from pol­i­tics caused by the twin shocks of the in­va­sion of Iraq and the fail­ure of the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment to rein in those prac­tices re­spon­si­ble for the fi­nan­cial crash. He knows how fraud­u­lent was the Tory rhetoric mis­rep­re­sent­ing a global bank­ing col­lapse as a fail­ure of do­mes­tic Labour pol­i­tics. He can see that this decade’s two ref­er­en­dums – one on Scot­land, the other on Brexit – were the con­se­quence of the pre­vi­ous decade’s po­lit­i­cal dis­hon­esties. You can feel his anger at Ge­orge Os­borne’s cal­lous en­force­ment of aus­ter­ity that has brought re­cov­ery to a grind­ing halt, sup­pressed growth, en­dan­gered the NHS, gen­er­ated huge in­equal­ity (“The fi­nan­cial sec­tor has paid out a to­tal of £128bn in bonuses since 2008”) and in­flicted so much need­less suf­fer­ing on the poor and un­pro­tected.

Brown started out as a stu­dent jour­nal­ist, and al­though he makes fun of his ap­pren­tice­ship at Ed­in­burgh Uni­ver­sity, he can write ex­tremely well. For some­one who, in interview, was known as a mo­torised leaf-blower, he man­ages on the page to lay out com­pli­cated ar­gu­ments in a way that is lu­cid and ex­em­plary. His most thrilling chap­ters are on the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, and then, sur­pris­ingly, on the hu­man and pol­icy costs of our hope­less at­tempts at na­tion-build­ing in Afghanistan. His worst en­e­mies – Nick Clegg, Mervyn King and Re­bekah Brooks, who was cen­sured by the Leve­son in­quiry for dar­ing to claim that Brown had wanted his son’s cys­tic fi­bro­sis bruited about in the Sun – will close the book shaken at the venge­ful ac­cu­racy of his aim. The Mur­doch press gets it in the neck. And there are glimpses of a mis­chievous side­ways sense of hu­mour, as when he tells of Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni try­ing to get Naomi Camp­bell’s phone num­ber at a G20 summit, or of when he has to en­dure Mar­garet Thatcher lec­tur­ing him on how to pro­nounce the name of his con­stituency.

In one area, Brown is con­sid­er­ably less than truth­ful. When dis­cussing Iraq, he seeks both to dis­tance his depart­ment – “Beyond ques­tions of fi­nanc­ing, the Trea­sury had lit­tle in­volve­ment” – and to pre­tend that he was mis­led into sup­port­ing the in­va­sion by what he only later dis­cov­ered was US sup­pres­sion of in­tel­li­gence sug­gest­ing Sad­dam Hus­sein did not pos­sess weapons of mass de­struc­tion. On this ques­tion at least, the charge against Brown is not the fa­mil­iar one of ex­ces­sive dis­par­age­ment of Blair. Rather, it’s ex­ces­sive loy­alty. Since, at the time of the in­va­sion, Robin Cook was shown ex­actly the same se­cret ev­i­dence as Brown and Blair and was ready, in pri­vate, to tell any­one else who’d lis­ten that it was al­ready ragged and un­con­vinc­ing, it’s a lit­tle late for Blair’s sec­ond-in-com­mand to be in­vent­ing fresh ex­cuses for why he failed to call out such a flawed ad­ven­ture.

On one equally im­por­tant mat­ter, Brown seems not to get the point. A windy chap­ter on re­li­gion, in which he com­plains of be­ing de­fined more by his en­e­mies than by him­self, forces him into the con­fes­sion that “If the val­ues that mat­ter to me most are the val­ues I speak about least, then I am, at least in part, in de­nial of who I re­ally am.” This weirdly bib­li­cal lan­guage echoes the book’s most re­peated com­plaint. He keeps claim­ing that “In a cri­sis you tend to focus on get­ting the pol­icy right and at times ne­glect get­ting the mes­sage across … I failed to con­vince the pub­lic not be­cause the pol­icy was poor but be­cause the com­mu­ni­ca­tions were poor.” He was, he says, uniquely un­suited to the mod­ern age. Even though at one point he tears the reader’s heart by dis­clos­ing that for a year af­ter his daugh­ter’s early death he could not lis­ten to mu­sic, nev­er­the­less he claims he could not ac­cept that to be suc­cess­ful in pub­lic you must talk in­ti­mately about your­self. Be­cause his in­ter­est was in putting the coun­try to rights, he some­times wrongly came across as “re­mote, off­hand, and un­com­mu­nica­tive” and lack­ing “emo­tional in­tel­li­gence”.

There is some­thing des­per­ate about Brown’s in­sis­tence that if only he could have mas­tered Twit­ter, ev­ery­thing would have worked out. Clearly, he is never go­ing to ac­cept the hard truth that he didn’t have a prayer of be­com­ing Labour leader fol­low­ing John Smith’s death in 1994. Stephen Frears, who di­rected the TV movie The Deal, once ad­mit­ted that the film had falsely prop­a­gated a myth that any­thing was se­ri­ously at stake in the Granita meet­ing be­tween Blair and Brown. In fact, Brown’s sup­port in the party had been tiny, and Blair’s as­cen­dancy an in­evitabil­ity. But nor is Brown able to ap­pre­ci­ate the real source of his dif­fi­cul­ties both as a team mem­ber and as a leader.

That root source was best de­fined to me by one of his clos­est al­lies, some­one who had worked at his side for many years. Brown, she said, was like an ac­tor who could watch and as­sess ev­ery­thing in the film ex­cept his own per­for­mance. “Gor­don was,” she said, “the most bril­liant per­son I ever met when analysing any prob­lem not to do with him­self. But he’s the worst judge alive of any­thing which is to do with him.” This anal­y­sis rings a loud bell, and ex­plains why Brown was so cred­u­lous when Blair sug­gested to him he would want to pri­ori­tise rais­ing his young fam­ily af­ter just a few years in Down­ing Street. (The rest of us would have screamed back, “Fat chance!”) It also ex­plains his fa­tal fum­bling of an early elec­tion af­ter he be­came prime min­is­ter. But, more im­por­tant, it sug­gests why he has al­ways ex­hib­ited an ev­ery­man di­men­sion that is un­ex­pect­edly mov­ing. Brown has in abun­dance what the rest of us have to some de­gree – a haunt­ing ig­no­rance of our own place in the pic­ture. The fact that, to judge by this book, he re­mains un­aware of this fail­ing makes it all the more af­fect­ing. It is this qual­ity – knowl­edge of ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing ex­cept him­self – that con­nects the dis­tant, frus­trat­ing Gor­don Brown to the hu­man race. It may not have helped his progress as a politi­cian, but it makes him recog­nis­able to me at least, and per­haps to you.

An en­dear­ing lack of self-aware­ness … Gor­don Brown with Tony Blair

512pp, Bod­ley Head, £25

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