So much about Gordon Brown has changed, especially in the 27 months of his premiership. What has most definitely not changed is his own core certainty that he is the right man in the right job at the right time ? so anyone who thinks he will take the advice of serial back-stabber Charles Clarke and submit a spurious resignation on the grounds of “ill health” is deluded.
The name is the same but we are not related, except through breathing the same linoleum-laden air at the same time in Kirkcaldy in Fife, for which he is now MP. I was grateful for the patience of his father, the Reverend John E Brown, who, after a weary day in his parish, took the time to help a hapless cub reporter understand the arcane deliberations of Kirkcaldy Presbytery; later, I edited his column in Scotland’s best-selling daily paper The Daily Record when he was an Opposition MP; and I have known him since as a considerate friend.
Those who struggle to understand Gordon Brown have to realise he is a product of a particular time, place and people, an uncommon family, and life events that were bound to have a deep psychological impact. He is also a much-changed man since marriage to Sarah, then fatherhood and family tragedy, and his delight in his two sons, John and Fraser, have humanised the famously forbidding politician. The beetle-browed glower and occasional volcanic eruptions have not disappeared, but there is also a sociable and matey bloke, who can ? even under the stresses of world politics, national turmoil, party strife and an impending election ? be unbuttoned, good humoured and a doting family man.
Because of the “Broon” connection, I am often asked what makes him tick and my answer is invariably: “No one knows Gordon Brown ? not even, I suspect, Gordon Brown…”
In this era of personalised politics, it is easy to present him as complex and cantankerous, even “psychologically flawed” (whether it was Peter Mandelson or Alastair Campbell who coined the phrase, it was rich coming from either). When I had the temerity to write an article “Inside Brown’s Mind”, friends joked: “Don’t go there ? it’s too scary.”
To those who know him, the background and life events that made him, the real Gordon Brown is much more understandable ? and, yes, likeable. Importantly, his basic beliefs and his badly battered “moral compass” are still intact, despite the compromises and mistakes that go with government. A new book which I have written with former Scottish first minister Henry McLeish, Scotland: A Suitable Case for Treatment, attempts to define the Scottish psyche and the character traits we must change in the 21st century. Psychologist Anne Ellis, creator of the online PeopleMaps psychometric testing, contributes a perceptive psycho-profile of the PM ? “a very typical example of a dour Scot”.
“Here is someone who cannot stand artifice or playing to the gallery,” she says. “A serious-minded individual with great mental abilities… as with all serious-minded people, he cannot stand flightiness or stupidity. He has no time nor interest in courting popularity as he wants to get on with solving the problems of the world.
“Some might call it arrogance, which would astonish him. He truly believes that he is the person in the best position to do this due to his past experience and connections to world figures.”
She also says the charge of indecision could not be further from the truth because he seeks the perfect solution and cannot sign off on anything until his need for perfection is met: “The danger in this is that the 100 per cent perfect solution might come too late to be of any use, and other, more pragmatic, people would go with 80 per cent if it got the job done.”
She concludes tellingly: “His being Scottish has been an issue with the UK electorate; this is not due to racism but more to the fact of him being so typically representative of the disgruntled dour Scot unwilling to give any quarter and play the popularity game. ‘Thrawn’ is a good Scottish word that sums up his attitude.”
When my wife read this assessment, she assumed Ms Ellis was writing about me ? especially with the addition of that word “thrawn”, which is automatically applied to my fellow Fifers. Most people think it means stubborn, but thrawn is more than that; it is stronger than stubborn, more than mulish. Fifers take obduracy to a new level of sometimes self-damaging doggedness, and the more people press him to do something, the more he digs in.
Another trait is that Fifers make good friends but bad enemies who will always remember a good turn but never forget (and rarely forgive) a bad turn. There are many in British politics who will recognise that trait and others, who have been out-manoeuvred by him, should have remembered the saying: “It taks a lang spoon tae sup wi’ a Fifer.”
In the run-up to his accession to the Labour leadership, I charted a “Gordon Brown theme trail” in our home town for foreign TV teams and would-be biographers. It took them to St Bryce Kirk, where his father was minister and where the heart-rending funeral service for baby Jennifer was held … the manse where he grew up and learned the lessons of practical Christian socialism … Kirkcaldy High School, where he was fast-tracked to university at 16 … the rugby field where he received the injury that cost him the sight of one eye … Stark’s Park, where he sold programmes and still supports Raith Rovers.
It was not mere conference rhetoric when he said in his accession speech: “My parents were more than an influence, they were ? and still are ? my inspiration, the reason I am in politics. And all I believe and all I try to do comes from the values I learned from them.”
We both grew up in a once-confident and thriving industrial town that had fallen on hard times. Kirkcaldy was ringed by the deep pits of one of Scotland’s richest coalfields stretching far out under the sea, its linoleum factories were world famous and jobs were guaranteed in engineering factories, linen mills, granaries, furniture-makers and a bustling shopping centre.
In the 1950s and 1960s, pit closures hit the town hard and the only coal was that gathered by deprived families, picking sea-coal on the blackened beaches. As fitted carpets and vinyl came into fashion, the linoleum factories closed their gates and the “queer-like smell” of linseed oil, cork and paint disappeared.
Brown once told me of the impression made on a young boy by the procession of hard-luck cases to the kitchen door of the manse: beggars looking for food, mothers of young families with not enough money to last the week, the bereaved and the troubled: “I suppose it’s not a bad training for politics. Representing people I grew up with means I will never lose touch with these roots. The thread that runs though my life is totally consistent.”
The Reverend John told his three sons, “You can leave your mark on the world for good or ill…”, which his second son interprets as: “I joined the Labour Party out of faith. The Labour Party must stand for more than a programme, we must have a soul.” There are echoes of the father’s sermons he listened to in his growing-up years in those pulpit-thumping “old-time Labour religion” speeches which used to win him standing ovations at party conferences.
However, he also has the classic Scottish dual nature: outwardly, we exhibit a brimming self-confidence, yet internally we are riven with self-doubt and qualms that we may not actually be as superior as we think. This may account for some of the inexplicably bad choices and indecision that have blighted a premiership which began brilliantly.
His early months in 2007 with his handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis, terrorist outrages and outsmarting Cameron at PMQs saw surprised former critics use words like “masterly”, “triumphant” and “potentially great”. Then came “the election that wasn’t”, the 10p tax debacle, the climb-down over the treatment of Gurkha veterans and the delayed reaction to the MPs’ expenses scandal. All gut issues which should have been no problem for the formerly sure-footed Brown but “my Presbyterian conscience” and “my moral compass” appear to have been over-ridden.
The impression has been created of besieged Brown in his bunker, but he does not recognise that picture and as far as he is concerned, he is “getting on with the job”. He denies he is over-stressed and laughs off the Westminster rumours and vicious internet blogging about his mental and physical health and his eyesight, telling a radio interviewer in New York that it is “not at all deteriorating”.
I have two handwritten notes which seem to support his denial. In the middle of a world crisis, he takes time to phone and write words of encouragement for an ailing friend, now recovered. For what it is worth, the most recent note is typical ? thick black felt pen stabbed in haste on to the note-paper, no better and no worse than five years ago.
His loss of sight in his left eye and impairment in the other because of a school rugby accident was rarely discussed until he became Prime Minister. At 16, he spent almost a year in complete darkness and suffered five years of operations which might have resulted in complete loss of sight. The effect of that dark ordeal, which he described as “living torture”, upon the character of an active teenager, who was a voracious reader and had dreams of becoming a professional footballer, can only be guessed.
The one thing that those closest to him worry about is the effect on his spirits of the violent ups and downs of political life. One day he is honoured as world statesman of the year, praised by Henry Kissinger for his “vision and dedication” in handling the world economic crisis. Simultaneously, he is ridiculed and undermined at home, not least by the long-term enemies in his own party who cannot wait to see the back of him.
The Brighton conference will be a feverish hotbed of intrigue as they take what could be their last opportunity to ratchet up the pressure. Their delusion is that by dumping Brown, Labour might scramble enough votes for them to survive in their own seats, perhaps even in a hung parliament.
It could be said that no prime minister in the past 50 years has had to weather a worse international crisis. None has had to endure the humiliations and the blatant betrayals being heaped on him and it would be understandable if he buckled and walked away, with his dignity and sanity intact.
From what I know of Gordon Brown, that will not happen. He does not want to go out on a sour note and he is stung by any suggestion of failure. Having waited so long and suffered so many frustrations waiting for Blair to honour their deal and make way, he wants to make it count. (When he phoned me the morning after the Granita deal to say he was not going for the leadership, the word was he had been “stitched up”, not by Blair but by Mandelson. It says much about the desperate state of affairs that Mandelson is back as Brown’s most powerful ally in government.)
The PM is firmly convinced that despite the polls, British voters have not moved to the right. He believes that the voters will credit him as the only leader who can cope with the ongoing world crisis and that they will rumble Cameron as a lightweight with no effective policies.
Brown’s job at Brighton is the same as party leaders under pressure in the past. At best, to rally the rank and file behind him; at worst, to avoid losing the general election six months before it is held.
He might well echo Harold Wilson’s words to the conspirators in 1969: “I know what is going on. I am going on.” He might even paraphrase Margaret Thatcher and tell the conference: “The Prime Minister’s not for quitting.” Because he is not.
Tom Brown has 50 years’ experience as a leading reporter, columnist and newspaper executive in Scotland
‘Wherever he is in the world, Gordon always checks the Raith Rovers score’
Gordon Brown has been a faithful fan of Raith Rovers, the team I also support. As a boy, he sold programmes at the ground to make some pocket money and also to get free admission at half-time. When he was Chancellor, he had a hand in reorganising the club’s board and personally negotiated the transfer of Trinidad and Tobago World Cup player Marvin Andrews from Rangers to Raith. He asked me to write the book Marvellous Marvin as a way of sweetening the deal by supplementing the money on offer.
He goes to home games as often as he can, and always checks the score wherever he is in the world. This 2007 photograph, with me joining him in berating the referee, was taken at the first game he attended as Prime Minister, and he was on the pitch at the start of this season when the Division Two champions flag was raised, celebrating the club’s return to the Scottish First Division. TB
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