By NOAH KEATE
To hold the highest office in British politics is a remarkable achievement. Given that so few politicians have reached steps of 10 Downing Street, analysing the lives and events that have shaped such political success is important. It allows an examination into the past to view what factors drove such political ambition. Often, attaining such power is driven by a combination of luck, wider political factors and the failure of one’s opponents. Every Prime Minister, whether strong or weak however, must have a personal drive and motivation for public service to willingly endure the daily criticism, opposition and extreme decision making that comes with such a brief.
When people think of Gordon Brown, certain conventional wisdoms spring to mind. Prime Minister between 2007 and 2010, he previously served as Chancellor for 10 years. The internal conflict between himself and Tony Blair over becoming Prime Minister has been widely documented. A coronation following Mr Blair’s departure was never in any doubt. With a premiership dominated by the financial crisis, the economic damage widely contributed to Labour’s electoral defeat in 2010.
Yet, as Gordon Brown’s autobiography ‘My Life, Our Times’ demonstrated, that picture is far too simplistic. Media commentators often painted both Gordon Brown and later Theresa May as lacking the requisite emotions and media intelligence to perform effectively as Prime Minister. Brown was in charge during the dawn of the internet age, in particular Facebook and twitter, where a 24/7 media focus on politicians rapidly becoming the norm. If you weren’t a charismatic politician, your chances of media success were severely limited.
His autobiography however allows readers to gain a far more rounded picture of his ambitions and origins. Though to some it may seem trivial, I found it important and moving learning about Brown’s childhood and life in Scotland. In his rich writing, a picture was created of someone who wanted to do better for others. While many may regard a politician’s life outside of politics insignificant, it’s essential for understanding what they want to do in politics.
In particular, the story of Brown’s eyesight gradually deteriorating was moving and harrowing. A clear difficulty for proper success, Brown writes how he never let an absence of eyesight stop him from persevering. This philosophy runs throughout much of Brown’s career. Though large parts were spent as an opposition MP, there was a clear drive to make Labour electable after its successive election defeats to Margaret Thatcher. The focus on balancing radicalism with credibility runs throughout and is discussed in significant depth.
These policy examinations of how the party changed are rich in detail. As Shadow Chancellor for five years before Labour entered office, Brown played a heavy responsibility in ensuring Labour was trusted on the economy. By accepting, and even embracing the private sector, instead of Labour’s previous opposition, he was a crucial part of reassuring individuals that Labour could be trusted with their money.
The achievements of New Labour, which have been frequently attacked by Labour since leaving government, are repeatedly stated. Brown often talks about what the government did to help other people. However, at times, this can lack depth. While the facts and statistics are reeled off, examples of individuals clearly having their lives improved is far thinner. By contrast, heavy sections of the book concentrate on the minutiae details of economic policy. While that might appeal to an academic, it is likely to reduce the reach of his work.
Indeed, the book easily balances the policy with policy with personality. This is often hard for any political autobiography to do. Politicians want to reflect on the specific changes they made to suggest their achievements have some merit and legacy. At the same time, autobiographies can easily become a ‘tell all’ expose, where publishers, desperate for attention, allow politicians to run away with themselves on political divisions.
Brown manages to maintain a balance. There is of course a focus on the supposed betrayal of Tony Blair. Despite agreeing to serve only two terms, Brown’s anger when Blair decided to contest the 2005 election was apparent. More striking was Brown’s explicit remarks on the Iraq War and his willingness to retrospectively regret that the war had taken place. That a Prime Minister would
criticise another Prime Minister in this way is remarkable. It is surprising in my mind that this didn’t receive more press attention when the book was first published.
Brown, like any politician, wants to highlight what they got correct. There is an immense focus on Britain’s potential membership of the euro and why Brown didn’t go ahead with entry. On that front, he has clearly been vindicated. Similarly, there is a heavy focus on successfully preventing Scottish independence in 2014. Though intelligent, reflective, logical remarks are made against independence, Scotland’s succession sadly appears more of an inevitability. Indeed, one could argue the creation of the Scottish Parliament under New Labour was a key catalyst in fuelling independence.
Every Prime Minister should write their memoirs after leaving office to inform future office holders of what to expect. Though always, to some extent, a filter they provide a level of guidance from those who have been in charge. Brown is not immune from criticism. Given all his ventures after leaving office, I can’t understand why he stood down as an MP after the 2010 election. Similarly, Brown’s focus seems to always resort to what the state, rather than individuals, can do to help out. ‘My Life, Our Times’ is a worthy, revealing read for someone who all can agree served an influential role in British politics.
Image: Flickr/Number 10 Downing Street