AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY ought always to be approached with caution. It will, of necessity, be an attempt to justify the author not so much to others but to himself. Gordon Brown may, as he asserts, seek to set out “what I got wrong as well as what I got right”, but that will depend on the accuracy of his self-perception. Tragically, in this Brown is found wanting.
Although partly entitled “My Life”, this is a strictly political biography, giving little away about Brown himself apart from what is already known. The one exception is his heartbreaking description of, and reaction to, his baby daughter’s death: “I doubt if I smiled even once for months after Jennifer’s death. I could not listen to music for more than a year.”
Nor are there any details of the toxic relationship between Brown and Tony Blair, or of Brown’s attempts to supplant his predecessor. Gossip is eschewed, save for the comment that at the G20 meeting Silvio Berlusconi was eager to discover Naomi Campbell’s phone number! On the defining issue of the Blair years, Iraq, Brown almost disappears from the narrative. His “official role” was “to find the funds for it”. Claiming that he was already “on the road to a head-on collision with Tony” on the euro, NHS, and tuition fees, disingenuously he says that he was anxious to avoid a fourth area of dispute.
There can though be no doubting Brown’s considerable success in making Britain a fairer society. Among achievements listed are tax credits to address child and pensioner poverty, the New Deal on jobs, financed by a windfall tax, the minimum wage, and Sure Start. In addition, he made the Bank of England independent, rejected the euro, massively refinanced the NHS, reprogrammed international development aid, and pioneered debt relief to poor countries. While he rightly abolished mortgage tax relief and the married couple’s allowance, he admits his error regarding the 10p rate of income tax.
Further, on entering office, among a raft of measures designed to strengthen democracy by devolving power from the executive to Parliament and the people, Brown announced that the Prime Minister would no longer play any part in the selection of the Archbishop of Canterbury and other senior ecclesiastics, as well as his residual involvement in the appointment of judges.
What dominates this autobiography, however, is Brown’s belief that he was cheated from leadership of the Labour Party after John Smith’s death, and then that an alleged promise by Mr Blair to stand down in his second term was never fulfilled. Yet, as his own description of one particular day in office confirms, when he did at last realise his ambition, he was overwhelmed by the myriad of events that, of necessity, are the daily fare of any Prime Minister. And the fiasco of his handling of the election that wasn’t had the result that his popularity went “from near-hero to near-zero in a day”.
It was, though, as Prime Minister that Brown had his finest hour, when he galvanised the G20 to stop a global recession from becoming a depression. He has never had proper credit for this, owing to the widely held belief — engineered by Conservative spin and never properly countered by Labour — that the financial crisis in Britain was due to Labour’s profligacy, when the source of the banking collapse lay in Wall Street.
Yet, against the background of appalling behaviour by the press, it was Brown who secured from the G20 “the largest fiscal and monetary stimulus and the most comprehensive support programme for the financial sector in modern times”. Ruefully, Brown notes that he won the fight against recession but lost the battle for public opinion: “the power of myth in politics can be stronger than reality.”
The negotiations after the 2010 election resulted in a hung Parliament make fascinating reading. Unusually in this biography, Brown identifies two people for particular censure: Nick Clegg for betraying his own manifesto and backing an austerity regime, and Mervyn King for failing “to understand the limits of his unelected position”. Once more, one senses Brown’s feeling of injustice.
Brown seeks to justify his failure by blaming his natural reticence and personal reserve, as well as his inability to cope with Twitter. But the truth is more complicated than that. Yet, as so often with tragic figures, there is a nobility about Brown. He did not seek power for self-aggrandisement or material gain: nor has he in retirement. His concern was not just to make Britain a fairer place, but to create a “new world”. As Chancellor, he has much to be proud of. It is just a pity that he did not heed his father’s early advice: “Be thankful for what you have got.”
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.
My Life, Our Times
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