Gordon Brown: There is life after No 10
In his first major interview since losing the election, the former Prime Minister tells Christina Patterson why he's thriving as a constituency MP - and happily living without the trappings of power
Monday 26 July 2010
The last time I saw Gordon Brown, he made me cry. It wasn't just the way he stood, a Heathcliff battered, but not broken, a wounded warrior setting his face, one last time, against the glare of the cameras, and the gaze of the cackling hordes for whom he had been sport.
It wasn't just the tribute to his family, and his staff, and to the soldiers whose hands he had shaken. It wasn't just his assertion that he had learnt "much about the very best in human nature and a fair amount too about its frailties", including, he was careful to add, his own. And it wasn't just those scrumptious little boys. It was the whole damned caboodle, the whole tragedy of it, and dignity of it, and pity of it, and screaming, howling, frustration of it, that what had started so well had gone so badly wrong.
But that was on the telly, and this is what TV producers like to call "reality" on a wind-swept July morning in Fife. In spite of widespread rumours that Gordon Brown has been abducted by aliens (or absent from London, which amounts to the same thing), or perhaps to counter them, I have been invited to spend a day in his constituency, shadowing him. I am excited. I am terrified. I don't know how you talk to mad, bad mafiosi. I don't know how you get them to open up, particularly when you've been told that they will only talk about their work in Fife. About which, it has to be said, you don't know very much.
But here's the car and here, leaping out of it, is the man. If he has spent the past two and a half months brooding in an attic, there isn't much sign of it. Gordon Brown looks healthy and fit. When he bounds over and shakes my hand, he also seems quite cheerful. We're at Fife Energy Park in Methil for a meeting with the MD of Burntisland Fabrications. It isn't strictly speaking in Brown's constituency, but Burntisland, where its other factory is. I passed through it on the train up, an almost parodically industrial vista of factory chimneys and red brick blocks, set against a background of driving rain and sea.
We march down a long corridor, running alongside a Tate Modern-sized space enclosing a giant pipe. This, however, is not an Anish Kapoor or a Carsten Höller. It's a real pipe, in a real factory as part of a real industry and one that's clearly adapting to changing times. At a meeting table dotted with cups of coffee and plates of biscuits (which nobody touches) Brown grills the MD on the company's current activities, the number of "jackets" (sub-structures for the wind turbines) that it's producing and the number of apprentices it's taking on. I can't keep my eyes off Brown's face. It's like a map of a man's soul, a collage of storms and sorrow and steel. "For the benefit of Christina," he says, jolting me out of my fantasies of fly-on-the-wall invisibility, "Britain is now the biggest producer of offshore wind". I believe it. Leaving London in 28 degrees, I'd thought a summer frock would be just the ticket. Ever since I arrived, my fingers have been blue.
Perhaps sensing that the industrial history of Fife wouldn't be my special subject at Mastermind, Brown fills in some of the gaps. There used, he tells me, to be 66 mines, employing 33,000 people. But now mining has died. "Fife's history," he says, "has been trying to create new jobs in new areas every 30 years." Apart from the dockyard and the naval base, and the lino industry which was once huge and has now dwindled to almost nothing, jobs in manufacturing are now few and far between. "What's great about this project," he says, and he looks as though he means it, "is that it's about tackling climate change, creating new sources of energy, reducing our dependence on oil and creating new jobs. Fife," he continues, "has got two big colleges, Adam Smith College and Andrew Carnegie. Education has always been the route out, and apprenticeships in particular."
It's time for us to get "booted up". "I bet you didn't think you'd be doing this," says Brown chummily, as I swap my dainty black pumps for chunky builders' boots and stuff my hair into a yellow plastic helmet. He looks perfectly comfortable in his, and strides happily across the mud and puddles to the vast building yard, dotted with massive steel structures straight out of The War of the Worlds. As various bigwigs from the company point out technicalities relating to "the jackets", my red linen shift dress (carefully picked to send a cheery signal) enables me to sample the full strength of the Scottish wind. I can't say I'm sorry when it's time to leave, but on the way out we're held up. In Portakabins on either side of the path back to the factory, workers in orange boiler suits are having breakfast. Brown pops his head in and is greeted like a friend. Some whip out their mobiles to take pictures. There's much back-slapping, and much joshing about Raith Rovers.
Back in our normal shoes, and without our helmets, we set off in different cars to the next stop. It's the Council for Voluntary Services in Buckhaven, a tatty building on a run-down parade. When Brown arrives, he is grabbed, and practically hugged, by a woman who works in the shop next door. After shaking hands with a passer-by who looks as though he might be a junkie, he is finally taken inside. Bryan, the manager, and his deputy, Carol, and I perch on office chairs as Bryan explains the work they've been doing.
"A lot of the charities," he says "are built around employability." "Often," Carol chips in, "it's about building softer skills, building confidence." Brown tells a story about a woman he met at the Adam Smith Institute, a woman who had, he says, been asked to write down for prospective employers what she'd achieved. "It was nothing," he says. "She said there was nothing at all she could write down. So she went off to college. Just," he says, and for a moment he looks ecstatic, "for that woman to have that certificate in her hands! We're planning," he adds, "to get Fife to be the first part of the country to have 100 per cent internet access. Martha Lane Fox is going to come up and help. We've even got a class where pupils will teach older people how to get on to a computer."
It isn't the World Bank, it isn't the IMF, it isn't the Budget, and it isn't the Queen's Speech, but Brown, I really can't help feeling, is just as happy sitting in this little room, stuffed with desks and filing cabinets, as in the drawing room at No 10. At times, while Bryan is talking, Brown leans back in his chair and throws his chest forward in a way that makes me think, surreally, of a robin redbreast. At other times, he rests his chin on his chest in a way that makes him look gloweringly fierce. Both, I think, perhaps peculiarly, are signs of ease, rather than the lack of it. "Domestic politics" is a taboo subject, but its shadow looms over the discussion. The Future Jobs Fund, which Brown founded, and which has created 100,000 jobs, has been scrapped. Bryan and Carol are worried sick. "We're just recovering from the 1980s," says Bryan. "We know what works." Brown nods grimly. "We're going to have to be prepared," he says, "to do things locally."
But time's up, and we've still got quite a few things to do "locally", and this time I'm going in the car with Brown! Squashed between him and his aide, and trying to fasten a seat belt which appears to have no clip, I cast around for questions I think will pass the test of blandness. In that tiny pause, Brown leaps in and starts interviewing me. So, my father came from Scotland? Ah, and my mother's Swedish? Well, Gothenburg's very interesting, isn't it? Yes, Gothenburg is very interesting, and in other circumstances I'd love to talk about it, but not, perhaps, when I've got a few precious moments with a former prime minister. Bloody hell! I thought this was meant to be a man with no social skills! And now he's got me chatting away about my family, and how the light here is really rather Scandinavian, and the poor man can't get a word in edgeways.
Finally, at least, we get on to his family, rather than mine. He has, he tells me, traced it back 300 years. The records in Scotland are "amazing". (Isn't everything in Scotland "amazing"?) His father's family all "comes back to this area of Fife", so he's got "lots of connections" with "all sorts of different parts of it". "I'm very lucky," he says, "that my constituency is where I was at school, and where I was brought up. Kirkcaldy High School is a very big school, so I still have friends, and colleagues, from that time." He tells me that Palmerston had to promise never to visit his constituency, because they didn't want him to interfere with local politics, and that Asquith got thrown out because he didn't visit his constituency, and that someone in the Western Isles became the first Labour MP to be deselected because he didn't either, and it's all very interesting, but please, please, please, Gordon, can we talk about you?
It must, I suggest, have been great to get that vastly increased majority? Brown laughs. "You mean, when other things weren't going so well?" Did it, I ask, feel as if the people who knew him voted for him, and it was the people who didn't who didn't? This time, the laughter is even louder. "Well," he says, "by definition, there must be some truth in that. But certainly, locally, where I've been concentrating my activities in the last two months ... it's great to do some of these visits, not just to thank people, but to find out if there's something we can do." And he's off again, telling me about a local youth project called "midnight football" in which young people play sports with professionals, and a local cycling club, which lends bikes to people who can't afford them, and a website that Tim Berners-Lee told him about where you can look up cycling danger spots and plot your route.
So does it, I ask him, desperate to get off bikes, and football, and anything, really, other than Gordon Brown, feel very different to life before? "Well," he says, "because I've always lived here, partly in London and partly here, it's not a huge difference. But you do," he admits, always preferring the less personal "you" to "I", "feel at home." And everyone loves him? "I don't," he says, with another hearty laugh, "know about that." We are arriving in Kirkcaldy. Brown is keen to know whether I have seen the esplanade. He is keen to know where I stayed. He is keen to know where I ate last night. He is concerned when I tell him that the kitchen was closed and that I went out in the rain for a Domino's Pizza. "You can understand Kirkcaldy," he says, once assured that the pizza was good, "by going to the esplanade, which is a mile and a half long looking out to the sea. If you start somewhere else," he tells me just a tiny bit sternly, "you don't get the right picture."
Anxious to pre-empt another history lesson, I try again. With his work ethic, I suggest, he was never going to sit around eating chocolate ... "I do," he interrupts, "eat chocolate." OK, but what I meant was that he presumably had a bit more time to relax and I wondered if he'd been doing much reading? The answer, not surprisingly, is yes. "I've read quite a lot," he says, "everything from novels to – well, I'm obviously trying to catch up on some stuff on what's been happening to different countries in global society. I feel quite strongly that we've got to build stronger links around the world, and obviously what's happening in China, India and Africa ... I'm just reading about that. I'm going to the Africa Union meeting in Uganda on Saturday. I'm doing local stuff, and something international, but I'm not really doing much national" – domestic? – "what you call 'domestic politics'," he says, and laughs.
Well, I didn't think he was going to rave about the latest Maeve Binchy. I know from poet friends, however, that he went to the poetry reading that Carol Ann Duffy organised in aid of Haiti, and explain that I used to run the Poetry Society. "I think," he says, "I met you doing that." I tell him I'm not sure, which is clearly ridiculous, but it seems rude to say no, and don't you think I'd remember if I'd met a Prime Minister? So does he like poetry? And what does he think of Carol Ann? Yes, he does, and he thinks she's "brilliant". "She read that Blake poem," he says, "the one about pain relief, something about having to help people in difficulty."
We pass Brown's old school. "That," he says, pointing out of the window, "is where I used to come up by bus from the centre of the town." It's sweet, this childhood reminiscing, but I'm still more interested in the past two months. Is he sleeping better these days? Eating better? Brown makes that famous grimace. "Er, not really eating better," he says. "Doing more fitness, funnily enough. I try to do some running and swimming every day. There's a gym near the house. I've been quite a lot." And can he wander round without being mobbed? "Without protection, you mean?" he says. "Oh, yes." Is it nice being away from the media glare? Yes. And can he see his boys growing up here? Yes. Are they settling in? Yes. And this," he announces, as the car grinds to a halt, "is the YMCA."
The building is shabby, but the woman standing outside it couldn't look more welcoming, and she's holding the hand of one of the cutest little boys I've ever seen. "Lizzie is doing amazing work with young teenagers," Brown tells me. "She organised a fantastic festival at Beveridge park."
Inside, we're greeted by the sound of bass guitars and the smell of baking cake. Brown pops his head into a room full of people playing basketball. "Are there any Raith Rovers fans here?" he asks. As always, the answer is "Yes". A young teenage girl comes up to me, points at Brown's back and says, "Who's that?" When I tell her, she's beside herself. "It's Gordon Brown!" she tells her friends. "Hello, Gordon Brown!" He asks her what school she went to. "I was there!" he says when she tells him. "I know you were," she says. "Miss, er, miss", but in her nervousness she can't remember the name of the teacher who was there with him.
In the room next door, children are drawing and painting. On the wall there's a sign saying "Smile and the world smiles with you", but today everyone's smiling all the time. Brown chats to the children and looks at their pictures. When he tries to leave, and a little boy emits a tiny moan of distress for being missed, Brown goes back into the room, crouches down, and asks him about his painting. Only when the boy is satisfied do we go upstairs, to a large room where teenagers are playing snooker, leaping around to a Wii, tapping away on laptops, and fiddling with a mixer board. The young men on the board are, it turns out, local media studies graduates employed as DJs as part of Future Jobs. But not, clearly, for much longer.
We squash into a room with a giant drum kit, where a group of young boys is rehearsing, and then move into a large studio where all the musicians, apart from one, are girls. The band is called Bliss and they're all 12. Leah, the lead singer, sounds like a young Laura Marling. Brown looks rapt as she sings. There's just time for a quick interview – "What kind of biscuit would you be?" Brown is asked, and replies that he'd be a chocolate digestive – before squeezing into the tiny radio studio. A group of boys is hunched behind the deck. They ask Brown to record a jingle for their radio station. He does it without embarrassment, or a single mistake.
After a quick look at the website built by another Future Jobs employee facing the chop, and signing a brick on the wall, Brown is off to do surgeries at his constituency office. Without a sniff of even a chocolate digestive, he appears to be going strong. Teri, The Independent's photographer, a local photographer called Brian (who has worked with Brown for years and clearly loves him) and I collapse with mugs of tea, and some of those home-made cakes. Revived and buzzing with sugar, we leap into Brian's car and the next stop on the itinerary, a project for young people with drugs and alcohol problems called Clued Up.
The Clued Up offices, in a run-down industrial building on the outskirts of Kirkcaldy, are literally colder than it is outside. The staff and volunteers are mostly in T-shirts. One, a spiky-haired 28-year old with a tattoo on his neck, tells me he's been clean for a while. Now, he says, he wants to help people. When Brown arrives, he leaps up, and shakes his hand. "Are you glad," he asks, "to be back in Scotland, Gordon?" Brown grins. "Yes," he says, "I am." In a room lined with posters about Hepatitis C, and "condom distribution points", he joins a group of volunteers and project users, and asks them about their plans. A young girl wants to go into hair-dressing. A young boy wants to work with animals. They all talk about courses at Adam Smith College. Education, education, education.
After a tour of the centre – one room displaying anti-drugs posters that the project users have designed, another screening films about Clued Up projects in graffiti art and street dance – we're offered some lunch. The volunteers have tracked down Brown's favourite meal and made it. It's a kind of bubble and squeak called "rumbledethumps". Brown takes a small plateful and pronounces it "great". He is concerned to hear that the organisers can't find funding for food parcels for people who come out of prison. "If you need help," he tells them, "come to me."
"They're all trying," he tells me, "to make something of themselves, having usually missed out at school". We're back in the post-prime ministerial car. I am determined to squeeze more out of Brown. He is determined to show me more of Kirkcaldy. I was wondering, I say, searching around for a way of linking it to the project we've just seen, and failing, what the biggest adjustments were for his new life? "Well, obviously," he says, "spending more time here. I don't feel that it's been that difficult." He seems, I tell him, quite cheerful. Brown chuckles. Yes, he actually chuckles. Does he really feel cheerful? "I'm very optimistic, " he says. "You just get on with things."
We're passing the high street, and reaching the esplanade, so it's time for a little lecture on Adam Smith, and how he would look out over the harbour, in the 1750s, and "see all these ships coming out of Kirkcaldy" and get his idea "that trade was the catalyst of change", the idea which fuelled The Wealth of Nations. Indeed, indeed, but never mind Smith. Brown said in an interview that he wouldn't miss any of the trappings of Downing Street. Does he? "I don't." Really not? "None of them. I've got," he says firmly, "my good friends here." And what about all those rich people? All those City people? "Well," says the man who has just expounded the theories of one of the great pioneers of free-market economics, "I've never really been attracted to that." So was it a relief to leave that behind? "I think," says Brown, "that that world exposed itself in the time leading up to the financial crisis. Ah! My primary school."
He points out his school, and the arcade he used to walk through as a boy, and the town hall, and the Adam Smith memorial garden, and the museum, and the art gallery, and Adam Smith College, and then, a massive church. "St Bryce Kirk," he says, with a little flourish. "It's an amazing building. These great bells that ring out. My father," he says, "was the minister." We turn left and into the road of his constituency office. "That," he says, pointing at a house on the left, "is where I grew up." It's a big, solid house, made of honey-coloured stone. Austere and rather beautiful. "So that," I say, "was the vicarage, or what do you call it?" A small pause. "The manse." Oh my God. The most famous "son of the manse" in the world, and I can't even remember the word "manse".
Trying, perhaps, to wrest back a tiny smidgeon of credibility, I tell him that I've been reading his books. Wartime Courage is, as its title might indicate, a little too military in its emphasis for my taste, though some of the stories in it are extremely compelling. But his first "courage" book, Courage, is actually quite riveting. It's moving, inspirational and at times the prose really takes off. When I tell Brown this, he seems almost shyly delighted. "That's a compliment!" he says. I tell him it is. "I used to have to get up at five to write it," he says.
The book was written "in memory of Jennifer", the Browns' first daughter who died at nine days old. It was partly about raising money for research to help premature babies, but was it a project he'd wanted to do for a while? "I was interested in it," he says, "but I don't think I would have done it if I hadn't had this project. We wanted to set up this fund, and I thought this was something I could do that might raise some money, and it was quite successful. I think maybe the wartime one sold more, but I think maybe I preferred doing the other one." The other one, I tell him, feels more from the heart. "Yes," says Brown, "it's more about me." For example, I say, the chapter about Mandela and how Mandela called him on the day his son, John, was born.
"He's an amazing guy," says Brown. Has he had any contact with him recently? "Yes," he says. "I've talked to his wife, Graça a few times. His birthday is actually the day after my young son's birthday, and Graça's birthday is the day after my other son's birthday." He tells a story about how, when Paul Boateng was High Commissioner in South Africa, he got a parcel from the Foreign Office and assumed it was the medal for Graça, who was being made a Dame of the British Empire. Boateng summoned the ambassadors, the press, and Graça, and opened the parcel. "And," says Brown, chortling at the memory, "all this glitter came out. It was actually my son's card to her!"
I want more of these stories, but we are, unfortunately, at Stark's Park for a meeting with the chairman of Raith Rovers. "I know this won't excite you," says Brown. He, however, has been a fan of Raith Rovers all his life. As a boy, he used to sell programmes in order to get free entry at half-time. In 2005, he was involved in a buyout of the club. "How are you doing, guys?" he asks as he bursts out of the car. "New season!" And then he disappears into a room full of trophies with the chairman.
Half an hour later, he emerges on to the pitch where we are, shiveringly, waiting. "The lads", now kitted out in their nice blue strips, are waiting, too, for training, chit-chat and photos. With more back-slapping, and more smiles, Brown asks where they're from. When he gets the responses, he beams with pride. Home-grown, hand-reared talent.
"Well, that clearly wasn't very exciting for you," says Brown, as we settle down for a final chat in that trophy-ridden office. I don't attempt to deny it. So, I ask him firmly, will he write more books? Brown nods. "I will write," he says, "but I'm more interested in writing about other people, or other issues." So, no Gordon Brown: The Inside Story? "No!" he says a touch sternly. "No. I'm fascinated by the way change happens, and I suppose the reason I chose the people for the Courage book was that it was people who'd actually made very significant progress in dealing with the biggest issues of our time."
And does he go back to the books at all? Was he, for example, tempted to seek consolation there in recent times? Brown laughs. "Och, I think you've got to recognise that when you're doing things in the public eye, there are downs as well as ups. Sometimes, it's not very easy, but if you look at the history of anybody trying to do change, there's obviously a difficult time, so I don't try to compare myself with other people, who are far more famous, and far bigger change-makers. I think it's the history of anybody who's involved in political change that you're bound to go through periods when you're assessed badly, or assessed well."
But at times that must have been dreadful? "I don't think so," says Brown. "I think that's the way the world is." Really? Really, really? "I think," he repeats, "that's the way the world is. I think, you know, you can talk about the British media, but there are other countries that have got similar problems with their media. I think," he says, with a great peal of laughter that actually sounds genuine, "I'm pretty resilient."
And if he was to pick one thing that he was proudest of? Brown doesn't hesitate. "I don't think people yet understand how near the most sophisticated financial system in the world was to collapse, and I think that I understood what was happening. Look, for most people, the last two years have not been anything like what people portrayed in the 1930s, but the financial collapse was originally as big as the 1930s, and so the fact that we managed to steer the economy, and prevent massive unemployment, and prevent high levels of mortgage repossession, and the fact that we got world-wide action through the G20 to do that, I think when people actually look at it in history..." He doesn't quite finish the sentence, but he doesn't need to.
But wouldn't he rather say that he made Britain better than did an incredibly vital salvage job? "I think," he says, "whenever you pass a new school, or a new hospital, or see a Sure Start centre, or see thousands more able to go to university or college or do apprenticeships, or simply see the protection that is given to pensioners that wasn't there 13 years ago, you see a big difference. And the question is whether, in the light of what I think are the wrong policies of the new government, people will feel the same way about what's happening to these great services."
Brown is clearly not about to say more about the policies of the new government, or become involved in national politics any time soon. Does that mean that he will focus more on international development? "I think," he says, "what I've done in the last two months is really what I wanted to do, which is do things locally. That's been my first interest, to put something back into a local community that I feel very much part of, and that I feel I've got a duty to, but I think I'll probably do more on international development and other areas of policy in the future. But that," he says firmly, "is for the future."
My time is up. I want to ask him about Mandelson, and Blair, and friendship, and loyalty, and dysfunction, and regrets, and feuds, but I can't. Instead, I ask this man who is so engaging in private, so warm, and smiley, and charming, if he wishes he had revealed more of himself, and if people might have warmed to him more? "Well," he says, "I've never had anything to hide. I'm an open book. People can ask me anything they like. It's up to other people to make their judgements about me. I'm not someone who wants to go around being a public relations officer to myself. It's up to others to say 'Does he go about his job in a sort of dignified, fair, reasonable way?' If the newspapers decide that's not the case, then I've got to live with that."
For the last time, I have a flash of déjà-vu. At first, I can't work it out. On the train home, I do. My father. Another ferociously intelligent, serious-minded, sports-mad Scot (brought up in England, but still a Scot) who could be both witty and dour. Another man with a precisely calibrated moral compass, a man who went to church all his life, but who would rather have died than talk about it; a man who, when he thought that one of his daughters (me!) was in danger of becoming an eternal student, wrote a letter, on Basildon Bond notepaper, saying that it was important to "render unto Caesar the things that are due to Caesar", ie get a job, pay your taxes, and do your duty as a citizen; a man who couldn't care less about money, appearance or clothes; a man who thought people were not a proper subject for conversation; a man of very strong feelings that he was sometimes too shy to show; a man who could be socially awkward, but whose arguments could silence a room; a man with a big brain and a big heart. My father believed that, if he believed something was right, it was right. After he died, I bought my mother a fridge magnet. It said "When I met Mr Right, I didn't know that his first name would be 'Always'." I don't think I've ever seen her laugh so much.
There are, clearly, two Gordon Browns. The one I met, happy on his own turf, secure in the love and loyalty of the people he knows and understands, utterly at ease with working-class people who are trying to make their lives better, is delightful. The other one, the one we read about in Peter Mandelson's The Third Man and Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party, and endless other accounts over the past 13 years, isn't. And the accounts are too similar to ignore.
In The Third Man, Mandelson says that Gordon Brown admitted he wasn't a popular, or a good, Prime Minister. Unfortunately, for most of the time, he wasn't. I'm not sure if you can describe someone who treated his staff the way he reportedly did as a great man, or even a good man. A member of his staff in Fife, who has known him for 25 years, and worked with him locally for many of them, insists that he's the finest man he's ever met. Others, at Westminster, would disagree. But I am pretty damn sure of this. I'm pretty damn sure that neither Tony Blair nor David Cameron would have got up at five every morning, while doing the most stressful job in the land, to raise money for a children's charity. And I'm pretty damn sure that neither of them would devote their life – and I mean almost every waking moment – to helping the poor.
That poem, by the way, that Carol Ann Duffy read for Haiti, and Brown so admired, was "On Another's Sorrow". "Can I see another's woe?" it asks, "And not be in sorrow too?/ Can I see another's grief?/ And not seek for kind relief?" I think they could put it on Brown's grave.
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