Saint and sinner. Genius and villain. The many aspects of Gordon Brown

by Kevin Meagher

Much has and will be written about Gordon Brown and about how he divides opinion both in British politics and, not least, in the party he once led. The many contradictions of his complex personality are already well chronicled.

A “moral compass” awkwardly spliced with low cunning. Big-hearted compassion for the poor matched with unrelenting brutality towards opponents. An expansive intellect married to occasional political stupidity.

At the root of it all, however, he was an outstanding social democrat, one of a select few Labour ministers – Bevan and Crosland spring to mind – who have left an indelible mark on British society.

He was undoubtedly Labour’s finest chancellor, using the role to rehydrate key public services, trebling spending on the NHS and doubling it for education. This alone will see his impact echo. But he also, for a time, brought about full employment and presided over the longest continuous period of growth since records began in the late 18th Century. Even his later failings to manage spending, against the vortex of the global banking crisis, will pale against his many achievements.

He was certainly our most political chancellor, using the office to pursue an unrelenting social democratic agenda in a way none of his Labour predecessors ever managed. Snowden, Dalton, Cripps, Gaitskell, Callaghan, Jenkins and Healy. Each of them found themselves at the mercy of events, implementing austerity measures in failing governments, dashing dreams and triggering internecine feuding in the process. Brown, for a good while at least, seemed to have mastered political alchemy.

“No more boom and bust” may seem a hollow boast now, but not when he used to make it. He made the whole of British politics believe it too. His intellectual dominance was, for most of his decade-long tenure as Chancellor, total. This explains why his Conservative opponents hated him so intensely, while admiring Blair.

His writ ran right across Whitehall, peering into every area of public policy, dictating to allies and rivals alike. He got away with it through sheer brute strength. Anyone who wanted to best him had to outpace him. But how do you do that to someone who routinely rises at 4am to start work?

But dominating the government’s domestic agenda and cultivating his powerbase in the party came at a price. When his moment eventually came in 2007, he carried into Downing Street his many bad habits. Surviving on nervous energy.  Failing to delegate. Mistakenly assuming endless deliberation and hard work were alternatives to making quick, intuitive decisions.

At the heart of his problem as Prime Minister was the lack of clear sense of why he wanted the job; (surely the deepest irony from a man so utterly driven to aspire to the premiership). While his love of “rat-fucking” (as Nixon called it) – doing over rivals – even at a cost to his own reputation – was his least attractive failing.

Observing the difference between Blair and Brown, Roy Jenkins is said to have remarked that Blair had a second rate intellect but a first rate temperament to be prime minister. The trouble with Brown is that he had the reverse attributes.

But he deserves endless credit for his role in reshaping Labour from a four-times losing party to winning three elections in a row.  Brown was a brilliant strategist. His early tenure as shadow chancellor after the bruising 1992 defeat saw him assume the mantle as the party’s pre-eminent moderniser.

“No more tax and spend” became his mantra as he imposed iron disciple across the party. In so doing, he became a lightning rod for the frustrations of the left and frontbenchers alike during the 1992-1994 period. Tony Blair, as shadow home secretary, drew less fire in recalibrating Labour’s approach, famously urging the party to be “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” (said to be a Brown soundbite).

By setting the pace on modernisation, Brown diminished his own prospects of becoming leader, calculating, as he surely must have, that John Smith would lead the party into the next election.  His untimely death came at the point when Brown’s prospects were out of orbit and it was Blair who snatched the leadership. Yet Labour’s 1997 victory was founded on the approach Brown enunciated.

He learned the hard way that political advancement is just as much about timing and positioning as it is about brilliance or industry. That didn’t stop him ratcheting up his efforts to ensure that the top prize did not elude him again.

During the slightly embarrassing internal process to anoint his succession to Blair (none of his contemporaries dared to stand against him), I heard him repeatedly pay tribute to activists; pointing out that he himself had once been a constituency party secretary. It was never a claim Tony Blair could have made. It was Brown’s rootedness that gave him the strength and ability to manipulate the party’s organisation to his advantage. (Blairites have never understood the party’s grassroots or internal wiring, which is why they could never beat him).

His announcement that he is to finally stand down as an MP leaves us with a palpable sense that an era is over. He has lingered, to no obvious effect, for the past four years in the Commons until he could perform a final, powerful service in practically single-handedly saving the No campaign’s faltering efforts to see off Scottish nationalism.

He leaves a massive hole in Labour politics. Just look at today’s frontbench. So many of them cut their political teeth working for Brown: Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander, Michael Dugher, Chris Leslie, Stewart Wood and, not least, Ed Miliband himself.

Gordon Brown was not perfect. Politics doesn’t throw up many saints. But like many parents I can look at my children’s refurbished school and say “thanks Gordon”.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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4 Responses to “Saint and sinner. Genius and villain. The many aspects of Gordon Brown”

  1. swatantra says:

    GB was really Old Labour whereas TB was all New Labour and the two were never going to agree; and their feud nearly damaged the Party, from which it is gradually recovering. Both have left behind deciples who are in their turn are intent on destroying the Party completely. Labour needs to break away from the Blair-Brown legacy and find another kind of Leader who disowns both Blair and Brown.

  2. Mark Stockwell says:

    I think it would really p*ss off Roy Jenkins that you single out Crosland ahead of him as ‘leaving an indelible mark on British society’. It is usual in articles of this nature to give his tenure as Home Secretary a passing nod, even if his later ‘treachery’ is unpalatable.

  3. Kevin Meagher says:

    Thanks Mark – get your point – but I regard Jenkins as a liberal rather than a social democrat. The point I was making is that Bevan (NHS) and Crosland (comp education) left social democratic legacies. I think Brown did too with his redistributive measures and record investment in public services. Not partisanship on my part for Jenkins’s subsequent actions, but I would argue his legacy was, and is, of a different nature.

  4. Tafia says:

    Anyone else think he’s actually going because his seat is almost certainly going to fall to the SNP?

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