Budget `97: Who is the man in the iron mask?

Dour child of the manse, Casanova, party in-fighter ... John Rentoul searches for the real Gordon Brown

Share
Related Topics
He was born in Govan - the same Communist heartland of Glasgow's docks from which Tony Blair's father lifted himself - in 1951, the middle one of three sons of John Brown, a Church of Scotland minister.

That John Brown's body is still hale, in its eighties, and living in Aberdeenshire.

It helps build the Iron Chancellor image to be thought of as a dour presbyterian, and the phrase "son of the manse" has trailed him like a cloud of righteousness all his political life. But Gordon is not really a member of the New Labour, New Church sect, despite having joined the Christian Socialist Movement three years ago. Like most politicians, he stresses those bits of his background which help with today's message, whatever that may be. Last November it was to the CBI: "Business is in my blood." His mum brought him up short. When he said he understood all about stock depreciation and leveraged gearing because his mother had been a company director, she protested: "I don't know why Gordon is saying all this. I was only a director on paper. I would hardly have called myself a businesswoman."

Gordon went to school in Kirkcaldy, the other side of the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. Possibly to maintain a hair-shirt image, he still supports Cowdenbeath, Scotland's fourth-worst football team. He took all his exams early, graduating from Edinburgh University aged 19 with a first in History. On the way he lost the sight in his left eye playing rugby, which emphasised his shyness and awkwardness - and made him more attractive to women. "He's got a glass eye because he was duelling with a scoundrel who insulted a lady," according to Julie Burchill. The first lady to get to him fitted the fairy-tale profile: she was a Romanian princess who dumped him after five years, complaining that it was all "politics, politics, politics".

Brown was elected to the Scottish Labour executive in 1977, and entered the maelstrom of the devolution battle. He led the campaign for a Yes vote, fought the hard-to-win Edinburgh South seat in 1979 and became chairman of the Scottish party. He had day jobs as a journalist and television reporter, but much of his energy was devoted to writing and editing political pamphlets and books, and to falling out with Robin Cook, already an MP and initially an ally, who responded pricklily to the driving ambition of his junior colleague.

He was elected to Parliament already burdened by great expectations. Whenever he was told he was headed for high office he would wince, and sink deeper into gloom. His worst moment came in 1988. When John Smith suffered his first heart attack, Brown stood in for him in the Commons; he roasted Nigel Lawson, at the height of his reputation as chancellor, and so Brown came top in the Shadow Cabinet election. "He's worried it's coming too early for him," said one of the growing band of Labour MP supporters. For 10 years he took the cautious, conventional route to the top. He turned down the first offer of a post as Scottish affairs spokesman and stuck resolutely to economic portfolios, being crowned with the shadow chancellorship five years ago. Learning from his brief experience as a journalist, he virtually invented the modern soundbite.

We knew his leadership aspirations were serious when he hired his own press secretary in 1993, the blunt and ferociously loyal Charlie Whelan. Whelan went to work immediately, and suddenly stories started to appear about Gordon's Girlfriends - a subject previously cloaked in a secrecy closer than any Budget purdah. A year later he took on the precocious Financial Times writer Ed Balls as his economics adviser. But the damage had already been done, with the party bruised by his no-taxing, no-spending line and journalists bored by his stilted sound-munches.

When, after endless tortured conversations with Blair in various "safe houses" all over the country, Brown finally pulled out of the leadership race to succeed John Smith, it was Peter Mandelson, his co-worker in the invention of modern political communications, who bore the full brunt of his intense frustration. Brown's capacity for feuding is one of the potential weaknesses of the Labour government. But he is not the humourless, grievance-nursing grouch he is sometimes made out to be. Privately, he is witty and charming. Even the most famous soundbite which bit him back, "post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory", only illustrates the danger of irony. After the impenetrable 91-word sentence from which the phrase comes, he paused and acknowledged ruefully to his audience that "endogenous growth theory is not the stuff of soundbites".

Whelan's energetic promotion of his boss is often misinterpreted by the Prime Minister's entourage - although Blair's own view is hard to fathom. A full-colour spread in the Mail on Sunday magazine two years ago was hardly helpful, portraying Blair as the dummy on ventriloquist Brown's knee, in the style of the Conservative election poster of Helmut Kohl. But Whelan's fingerprints were all over the article, which featured all five of Brown's known girlfriends, from Margarita (the Romanian princess) through Marion Caldwell (the lawyer) and Sheena MacDonald (the broadcaster) to Sarah Macaulay (current squeeze).

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£20000 - £21000 per annum: The Jenrick Group: This high quality manufacturer o...

The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenance Engineer

£30000 - £35000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Electrical ...

Recruitment Genius: Photo Booth Host

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company offers London's best photo booth ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers



£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Elton John and David Furnish finalise their marriage paperwork  

Don't be blinded by the confetti — the fight for marriage equality in the UK isn't over yet

Siobhan Fenton
Freeman, centre, with Lord Gladwyn, left, and Harold Wilson on the programme The Great Divide in 1963  

John Freeman was a man of note who chose to erase himself from history

Terence Blacker
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'