by Kevin Meagher
Reading extracts from the intermittent release of Damian McBride’s scabrous and painfully frank account of life at the heart of the Brown political machine, there is an obvious and dispiriting parallel that comes to mind. James Gordon Brown seems to be the closest thing British politics has to Richard Milhous Nixon.
The comparison has been made before, whether it’s at the literal end of the scale – both were brooding and insular – or in what they did in office. The Nixonian paranoia and skulduggery of Brown’s operation that McBride lays bare is depressing to read; and all the more so because it didn’t have to be like this.
If you measure Gordon Brown’s record between 1997 and 2007, he emerges as one of the greatest social democrats of the post-war era, up there with Bevan and Crosland in leaving an enduring mark on reducing inequality.
Yet when you stretch the review period by just three years to include his premiership, Brown, like Nixon, is reduced to a figure despised, discredited and disgraced – or so his political enemies (including those within Labour’s ranks) constantly tell us.
This is certainly hyperbolic; the Brown government was not that bad; and, sure, he was no angel when he was at the Treasury either, running a perennial campaign to usurp Blair, but the real waste is that this didn’t all end when he realised his life’s ambition by becoming prime minister.
Instead of enunciating a more enlightened, post-Blair form of social democracy, Brown wasted his golden opportunity by channelling his energies into his continued mania for shafting opponents, over-reacting to perceived slights, micro-controlling his political universe, gaming endless paranoid scenarios and worrying about resurgent Blairites (pale reds under the bed, so to speak). It’s no wonder Gordon was famous for working all hours of the day and night, all that angst does take time to work through.
The premiership of this hitherto brilliant man was reduced to a three-year hiatus, a stop-gap between Blairite and Cameroon pragmatic minimalism. The longest-serving chancellor in a century, the real prime minister in all but name for most of the New Labour period, was painfully exposed as unready and unsuited for the challenges of day-to-day decision-making. A feat almost guaranteed from the start by the paucity of new thinking he brought to the job.
Add to this that Brown was simply an unlucky PM – with everything from lost computer discs to live microphones – letting him down. Only in his response to the 2008 banking crisis did we get a glimpse of the best of Brown.
Like Nixon, Brown had it all in his hands and still managed to blow it. Like Nixon, his real achievements have been overshadowed by personal demons that brought out the worst in his approach to politics. Like Nixon, he had die-hard loyalists whose lack of perspective eventually helped destroy their master.
As Damian McBride’s unsparing pen reminds us this week.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut