Verso £8.99 (256pp) £8.54 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Broonland: the Last Days of Gordon Brown, By Christopher Harvie

As adepts of Photoshop endlessly elide the pores of party-leader portraits, and the creaking, shrieking merry-go-round of the general election picks up speed, the citizens deserve nothing less than robust political biography with their cornflakes. This is exactly what Christopher Harvie's Broonland provides, in a capacious critique of this most complex of modern British politicians - whose "last days" may not, even yet, be near.

We open with a comradely vignette of the early Brown, which only throws into relief the gothic labyrinth of his later career. In February 1979, as joint pamphleteers in support of Scottish devolution, Harvie and Brown are battering towards the Glasgow-Edinburgh train when Brown's ancient briefcase bursts open and cascades scholarly papers across the platform. "An epiphany of sorts", writes Harvie, "symbolising the sheer uncontainability of the man's information and ambition – 'an' him no' yet thirty!'" From this warm memory of Brown as "idealistic, generous and anarchic", Harvie sets out to chart his shift from "socialist credulity to capitalist credulity".

Harvie's idiosyncratic public writing - where theoretical haikus, historical filigree and saloon-bar one-liners jostle for prominence (often in the same sentence) - has in the past sometimes lost sight of its chosen subject. But in Broonland, his biographical connection with Brown - both Open University lecturers in the 1970s, both peers of Robin Cook, John Smith and Donald Dewar in the 1980s - turns Harvie into something like a polymathic Jiminy Cricket, perfectly perched at the PM's shoulder.

The narrative takes us from early days and the pact with Blair, through the jamborees of "financial innovation" in London (and Edinburgh), to Brown's strenuous crisis management of the last 18 months. Harvie bristles with objections to Brown's theories and practice that (you suspect) the good professor would love to put to him over a peaty bottle of malt, the cap irretrievably crushed.

As Harvie might say, in his position as professor of British Studies at Tübingen University, he mostly wants to have a Historikerstreit - a historian's quarrel - with his old academic colleague. How could such a self-conscious son of Kirkcaldy, the birthplace of Adam Smith, get the great economist so wrong? How could Brown's mid-noughties boast of "light-touch" financial regulation forget Smith's admonition against the "luxury and corruption" that naturally accompanied "conspiracies of merchants"?

Brown was a biographer of the flawed Labour leader James Maxton. Harvie intriguingly suggests that Maxton's distrust of big money, which veered into anti-Semitism, must have shaped Brown's embrace of the City. The Third Way progressive has to make his peace with cosmopolitan, turbo-charged capital markets, in order to benefit from their monetising autism. Brown trudged regularly to Rupert Murdoch's corporate lovefests, and even brought Alan Greenspan to lecture at Kirkcaldy Town Hall. As Harvie says, perhaps Smith's successor Adam Ferguson - the first analyst of how civil society could break down into in-groups and out-groups - would have been a better guide to the trading tribes of the City of London as they projected totemic power via near-magical rituals of money-making.

Yet Harvie possesses a map to the full hinterland of Gordon Brown. In late 2009, he watches the PM deliver a note-perfect eulogy to NUM leader Lawrence Daly, "alert to the loylaties of the retired miners and their families" seated in the pews of Dunfermline Abbey. Harvie grants "the conviction of the man" - that his legacy would be "a great city state founded on efficient trade, which it would use to ameliorate international divisions".

Yet this strategy is unravelled by the rise of the BRICS and the EU as global economic players. And, more sinisterly by what Harvie calls "illegalism" - when the stakeholders and regulators are chased out of the bazaar, capital flows get flooded with money from all striations of criminality.

Harvie is an SNP member of the Scottish parliament in Brown's own Kirkcaldy backyard: 20-odd years in the engineers' republic of Baden-Württemberg in Germany turned him away from British big-nation sclerosis towards Celtic regional reformism. So he has a predictable disdain for Brown's lumbering attempts to construct a "new collectivity" out of Britishness. But the professor's regret is more that the Brown who wrote The Red Paper on Scotland in the 1970s, and Where There is Greed (an anti-Thatcherite paean to hi-tech industry) in the early 1990s could preside over the final hollowing-out of British manufacturing. Harvie's German experience tells him that skillfully making stuff is the foundation for civic health and solidarity. Parading around in the tatters of the Union Jack is no substitute. Harvie draws a veil over the grotesque ideological cul-de-sac of Brown's "British jobs for British workers" - which is perhaps just as well.

Broonland brilliantly demonstrates the enduring truth that the most interesting politician is always a great bunch of people. Gordon Brown, the minister's son who believed he could harness financial savagery in a light socialist muzzle, already outstrips any character in the political fictions of CP Snow or Eric Ambler which Harvie regularly quotes. The book ends beautifully by citing Louis MacNeice: "None of our hearts are pure, we always have mixed motives,/ Are self-deceivers, but the worst of all Deceits is to murmur/'Lord, I am not worthy'/ And, lying easy, turn your face to the wall." Brown hardly regarded himself as unworthy. But as swarms of invigorated Tory boys mass on the plains, are we sure which face he turned to which wall?

Pat Kane is author of The Play Ethic (www.theplayethic.com) and one half of Hue And Cry

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor