The remarkable highs and lows of Gordon Brown

If he had been gentler in his approach he might have been more successful

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The Independent Online

Even the announcement that Gordon Brown is standing down as an MP is complicated. After all, we have known for some time that Brown would not be running for Parliament again. He has rarely been in Westminster since his electoral loss in 2010 and could not have played such a semi-detached role after the next election. Brown has agonised over the precise timing of the announcement, not wishing to undermine his role in the recent Scottish referendum campaign. Now he makes a formal statement. An epic career draws to a close with a perhaps typical combination of intense political calculation and ambiguous significance – insofar as we knew exactly what Brown was going to do, but the announcement of it still felt weighty.

He makes his formal bow with his reputation rising. In a political culture distorted by caricature, Brown had been written off widely and unfairly as a calamitous, vote-losing failure until his spellbinding interventions in the referendum campaign – at which point he was suddenly a hero. Such wild oscillations in reputation have marked his career. He leaves on an upward curve, but he could have so easily been sliding downwards, or at a higher peak.

One of the many lessons for contemporary politicians relates to Brown’s giddying ups and downs. Before the 2005 election Brown was so popular that Tony Blair had to bring him back to run the general election campaign. Soon after, Brown became so unpopular he feared he would never be prime minister. After ascending to that role he was so feted he contemplated calling an early election. When he failed to do so he became the least popular premier in history. These are edited highlights of Brown’s helter-skelter ride, accompanied by a thousand contradictory perceptions.

He was the glamorous Edinburgh student who was later seen as the dour, unfashionable Prime Minister. He was the youthful orator who later became a publicly wooden Chancellor. For those exposed to the intense heat at the top of politics, reputations not only rise and fall quickly, they do so repeatedly.

Brown’s internal and external critics overlook a key factor in assessing his career – the context in which he made his moves. When Brown became Shadow Chancellor in 1992, Labour had lost four successive elections. After the defeat in 1992, the party’s National Executive Committee held a bleak post mortem. Its polling gurus conveyed a single message. Labour was not trusted to run the economy, nor to spend a penny of voters’ money. This was Brown’s impossible inheritance and one of the reasons he changed his public voice. He feared that a single word out of place could bring the house of cards tumbling down once more.


Within five years the house of cards was fragile, but firm. He had reconfigured Labour’s economic policies in a way that made possible a landslide victory. Obviously Tony Blair’s electoral appeal at the time was an indispensable part of the package, but so were Brown’s economic policies, ones designed to reassure business leaders, and the still powerful media, while creating the space for redistribution and, over time, much needed investment in public services.

In 1992 voters did not trust Labour to manage their money. By the 2001 election Blair and Brown could make the main dividing line “Tory cuts” versus “Labour investment” – a division shrouded in New Labour caution but one that reframed fleetingly the UK’s juvenile, destructive debate over tax and spend.

Many Cabinet ministers came to resent Brown’s dominance at the Treasury but at no time did the lofty critics give much thought to economic policy. They left it to Brown, who became Labour’s longest serving Chancellor. Admittedly Brown would have pounced if Blair or any other minister had walked on to his terrain, but they chose not to do so. The fear of being jumped on was an excuse for not thinking about economic policy. Brown did the hard grind, as George Osborne does for the Conservatives. On Labour’s side it is no coincidence that Ed Balls is now Shadow Chancellor. He is the only other senior figure to have reflected for decades on economic policy and how it connects with the expedient demands of politics.

Brown’s other achievements are more widely recognised; his opposition to the euro and his prime ministerial response to the financial crisis, in particular. But one is often overlooked. He was a leader in waiting who became a leader. Nearly all who play that role never make it to the top. Boris Johnson and Theresa May take note.

The manner in which Brown became Prime Minister highlighted the man’s famous flaws – agonised obsessing over when and how he would replace Blair, then his treatment of Blair and others. If he had been subtler and gentler in his approach he might have been more successful, although the gentler leaders in waiting never became leaders. What is beyond doubt is that through all the partly masochistic agonising Brown was sustained by a seriousness of purpose as well as personal ambition. He was prudent for a purpose, a slogan that was subtler than it seems. Much of the media focused admiringly on the prudence. But Brown was driven by the purpose, which was social justice in various manifestations, ones that previous senior Labour figures had expressed in ways that lost them elections.

Ed Miliband has sought to be more explicit about his social democratic objectives, noting that in the end Brown became famous for being stealthy, a contradiction in terms. But look closely at Labour’s economic policies now. It is striking how similar they are in some respects to Brown’s before the 1997 election. Miliband and Balls have announced they will stick to Osborne’s current spending plans in the early phase of the next parliament. Their arguments around welfare savings focus on getting people back to work, on decent wages, the same as Brown’s. They have proposed tax rises that will impact on very few voters to pay for symbolic spending increases. All of these have very precise echoes with the build up to 1997. George Osborne will also pay assiduous attention to Brown as he prepares to make his next highly political Autumn Statement tomorrow.

Brown serves as a guide to those currently in power or who seek to win, even as those same individuals have for different reasons established brutal distance from him. The sequence of simultaneous emulation and distancing is typical of Brown’s career in its multi-layered complexity. As historians seek to make sense of this complexity they will come to regard him as one of the most significant figures in post-war British politics.

Steve Richards is the author of ‘Whatever It Takes: Gordon Brown and New Labour’, published by Fourth Estate