Gordon Brown’s autobiography is soberly written. It contains no startling new revelations, and is notably forbearing to his rivals and critics, including Tony Blair. Virtually the only people for whom he has sharp words are the Murdoch press and Rebekah Brooks, in particular, for intruding on his private grief on several occasions, and the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, for breaching the political neutrality which, in Brown’s view, was incumbent upon him.
Generally, Brown keeps his private feelings to himself, and is sparing in the details he reveals about his personal and family life. He says enough, however, about his childhood and youth for the reader to discern three great factors which had a decisive influence on his life.
The first was the example of his father, the Rev. John Ebenezer Brown, who Brown describes as a total paragon, to whom he owes his ‘moral compass’. Second was his educational experience. Picked out as an exceptionally bright child at a very early age, he was fast‐tracked through school in an educational experiment that saw him starting at Edinburgh University at the age of just sixteen.
The third formative experience was his loss of one eye and the threat of total blindness, from which he emerged with a firm determination not to let this handicap him in any way. The conclusion he drew was that he must work twice as hard as anyone else, and never make any mistakes. He was setting himself impossibly high standards, and inevitably occasionally failed to reach them.
His university career was a resounding success, and not only in academic terms. He was wildly popular, and at the age of twenty‐one, now a graduate student, was elected as Rector of the University. He came into conflict with the Principal of the University, Sir Michael Swann, who attempted to curb his powers when Brown tried to push through reforms. Swann was mortified when Brown successfully contested this in a court of law. Swann then tried to eject Brown from the chairmanship of the University Court, but was astonished to be over‐ruled by the Chancellor of the University, the Duke of Edinburgh, who had previously restricted himself to a purely ceremonial role. “We will never know why”, Brown writes coyly, “but perhaps he had been lobbied by a friend of mine and one of his royal cousins, Margareta the crown princess of Romania, who studied alongside me at Edinburgh”.
He did not mention that he and Margareta had had a passionate five‐year‐long love affair, and that he later confessed to his tutor that he desperately regretted that they had not tied the knot. Neither of them were actually to marry for another twenty years. He is equally silent about his lengthy courtship of Sarah Macaulay, though it is evident from the later narrative that it is a close and loving relationship.
Brown strongly defends the record of the New Labour government, and his own contribution, both as chancellor and prime minister, without mentioning in any detail his running conflict with Blair. He does admit having made mistakes, notably his abandonment of the 10p income tax bracket in 2009, but comprehensively refutes the Tory claim that he was responsible for provoking the banking crisis of 2008–9 by overheating the economy in the preceding years.
Despite its inherent absurdity, the Tories (with Liberal Democratic complicity) succeeded in persuading vast swathes of the electorate that it was true, to the great detriment of Labour’s future electoral prospects. This was not Brown’s fault, but that of Ed Miliband and other contenders for the Labour leadership who allowed the myth to take root. It has remained an albatross over Labour’s neck almost to the present day.
Brown’s premiership was undoubtedly a great disappointment to his supporters – at least until his final year in office. He had a brief honeymoon period owing to the great calm he showed in tackling a series of early crises, but this was rudely shattered by his fatal hesitation in considering the option of a snap election in the late autumn of 2007.
Accused by Cameron of ‘bottling’ the election, Brown, a master strategist but poor tactician, had no effective answer to his taunts. The Tories immediately established a substantial lead in the polls, which they maintained, with fluctuations, up to, and at, the 2010 general election.
Brown soon became highly unpopular, appearing indecisive. He was widely seen as a grumpy and dour Scot, totally lacking the easy charm of Tony Blair, which appeared to be rivalled by the young David Cameron. Rumours spread of Cabinet plots to depose him, and replace him with the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. But in June 2009, when Labour was reduced to third place in the European elections, Miliband declined to challenge Brown’s leadership.
Brown triumphantly succeeded in redeeming his reputation by his stellar performance in handling the banking crisis of 2009–10. He not only prevented the crash of three of the largest banks by emergency measures massively to increase liquidity and recapitalise the banks, but persuaded President Sarkozy, Chancellor Merkel, other EU leaders and the US Treasury Secretary to adopt comparable measures.
At his urging, the April 2009 summit of the G20 group of world leaders, which he presided over in London, agreed a world‐wide rescue package of $1 trillion largely channelled through the IMF and the World Bank and aimed, in the words of the economic journalist, William Keegan, “at stabilising the system after the biggest decline in GDP, industrial production and world trade since the Great Depression of 1929–32”.
The Nobel Prize winner for Economics, Paul Krugman, suggested in the New York Times that Brown may have “saved the world financial system”, and in Britain the Tory lead in the polls narrowed from 16 to 7 per cent. This improvement, however, was not sustained, and Brown went on to lose the 2010 election.
Despite Brown’s faults, history is likely to be kind to his memory: he was the strongest, and arguably the most successful, chancellor of the exchequer in modern times. His handling of the banking crisis was outstanding. And his decisive intervention in the Scottish referendum in 2014 quite likely averted the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Most people would have been satisfied to have achieved any one of these. But not Gordon: he had sought perfection, and this had eluded him.
Dick Leonard’s Titans: Fox vs. Pitt, co‐authored with Mark Garnett, is forthcoming in 2019.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Political Quarterly journal. My Life, Our Times is published by Bodley Head.