INTERVIEW / Could he do any better?: Stephen Castle meets the man who has to offer a convincing alternative strategy for steering sterling though its current woes; Gordon Brown

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The Independent Online
ELECTORAL defeat may, after all, have its consolations. Watching Norman Lamont staving off a sterling crisis last week, Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, must have pictured a Labour government suffering a similar buffeting had the voters decided differently in April, with a chorus of Tory MPs baying about the opposition's inability to run the economy.

Instead it is Mr Lamont sweating under the television lights outside the Treasury while Mr Brown and his senior colleagues are installed in new offices directly opposite. In topography at least, the differences between victory and defeat in politics can be slight.

Mr Brown is ready to demonstrate his renowned talent for ridiculing his opponent. Mr Lamont, he argues, would have been better off staying on holiday: 'when he was in Tuscany, the economy in Italy got worse'.

Then the familiar, fluent, slightly dour, Scottish broadside begins: 'Everything we predicted would happen after the election has unfortunately come to pass. It would be a disaster for the economy to raise interest rates but if he (Mr Lamont) brought the economy to a situation where that has happened he has only himself to blame. It will be the direct responsibility of the government for four or five months of inaction.'

But what would Mr Brown, so long the opposition politician, do differently? Finding out is not easy because Mr Brown is both one of the brightest politicians of his generation and one of the most adept at handling newspaper and television journalists. Indeed, a colleague credits Mr Brown and his friend and ally Tony Blair with 'the most sophisticated understanding of the technology of the broadcast media in the party'. If doing a quick television interview for the news, they will, whatever the question, 'shamelessly repeat the same line over and over again until the interviewer gives up and - that's his clip'.

Expect to hear over the next few weeks from Mr Brown, with great persistence, of the 'huge gap' between Labour and the Government on the economy. But what is this gap? Is not Labour's position on sterling and the Exchange Rate Mechanism identical to the Government's?

The well-practised reply comes straight back: 'What you're suggesting is that the dividing line between the parties ought to be between revaluation and holding to the parity within the ERM. What I am saying is that the dividing line between the parties is our call for joint co-ordinated action within Europe to stimulate the economies and our urgent call for domestic action to bring down unemployment, stimulate industrial investment and to ease the depression in the housing market.'

On a piece of House of Commons notepaper in front of him the Shadow Chancellor has written the words 'HUGE CHASM', to remind himself to stress the point.

Can this Labour neo-Keynesianism really offer a practical, workable alternative? 'We are,' counters Brown, 'seeing a package of measures in Japan, where they have 2 per cent unemployment, because they are so worried about an economy which has not been in recession in the way the British economy has. We have seen nothing happening in Britain.'

Could any of these measures really have a speedy impact on the economic position? 'I am very struck by the fact that what is preventing the economy recovering and what is causing the lack of confidence is people's fear that they may be the next people to lose their jobs. As long as people are afraid of unemployment they are not going to spend or invest or move home.' The body language is serious, the tone patient but persistent.

JAMES Gordon Brown, now 41, was born in Glasgow and brought up in the town of Kirkcaldy as its industry declined. His father, a Labour supporter, was a Presbyterian minister. Tories were not a significant presence in this world (the local opposition were independent ratepayers) and, by the age of 12, Gordon was already helping the Labour Party in elections.

Benefiting from an experiment that pushed his class through school a year early, he entered Edinburgh University at 16. By then, a rugby accident had left him blinded in one eye; the other requires regular medical attention. He spent long periods in hospital and, for a time his sight was in danger. His debt to the medical profession is not forgotten; colleagues at Westminster were recently introduced to the Edinburgh surgeon who saved his sight. He entered Parliament in 1983 as MP for Dunfermline East, but before then three strands of his life and personality had been established. First, there was Mr Brown, the rebel. Fellow students at Edinburgh exploited a loophole in the university charter to elect him Rector, with the right to chair the Court, shoulder-length hair notwithstanding.

He was not then, and is not now, inclined to ingratiate himself with the powerful. The party's pre-election 'prawn-cocktail offensive' of City and business lunches will be quietly assigned to the back-burner in favour of broader industrial strategy. While the Shadow Chancellor believes the City to be 'one of a number of very important industries' he is 'not under any illusion that card-carrying Tory Party members of fifty years' standing are going to turn immediately to Labour when they have, in many cases, pledged money to the Tory party'.

Then came Mr Brown, the academic. After a first in history, he became a lecturer at Glasgow College of Technology and later wrote a biography of James Maxton, a hero of Glasgow socialism. Colleagues describe him as a serious, slightly shy, workaholic, with a voracious appetite for briefing papers, large bundles of which are sent regularly by Red Star to his home in North Queensferry. MPs still joke that his idea of a break is to spend three weeks in the Library of Congress.

Organisation is not a strong point. Perhaps aware of his reputation, Mr Brown last week showed off an immaculately tidy Westminster office complete with well-ordered files and neatly lined bookshelves. It was apparently not always thus; a well-retailed story tells how police investigating a burglary once concluded from the state of his undisturbed desk that the flat had beeen ransacked.

The third Mr Brown is the journalist and media man. He spent three years at Scottish Television, ending as current affairs editor. Both his brothers work in television. Mr Brown can fairly be described as the master of the soundbite. Few are the weekends when a Brown press release fails to adorn the newspaper office fax. It will invariably be a good one, with the sharp, quotable phrase that catches the journalist's eye - one of his best attacked the chain- smoking Nicholas Ridley for bothering more about his ash-tray than his departmental in-tray.

This is where, some think, the Shadow Chancellorship, the second most influential job in the Labour Party, will test him. It is a more heavyweight job than his previous portfolio at trade and industry - 'an infinitely bigger job,' said one colleague - and it will demand bigger set-piece speeches and more clearly worked-out ideas.

The other Mr Brown - the private one - is a more mysterious thing. Some wonder if it exists at all. He has a long-standing relationship with a Scottish lawyer but rumours of marriage come and go. Friends concede that he does not relax easily. But he took a holiday in Portugal this year, he plays golf and tennis and he sits on the board of the Edinburgh Film Festival.

His beliefs are, he says, rooted in his upbringing. 'Being a minister's son, you are more aware of the importance of community. The community must act as a community and, just as the command economy has been a discredited ideology, so too has free market dogma to which the Conservative government still clings.'

This has triggered a series of thoughts, some more developed than others, on how the Labour party should address the electorate in four or five years' time. Here Gordon Brown, the academic, gets into his stride with an assured, assertive plea for what he calls new thinking, rather than the revisionism of the Eighties. 'We have to face up to new international as well as national challenges, how to respond to the challenges of the global economy, the environmental revolution, the training and skills revolution . . . I have proposed an environmental task force along the lines of the Peace Corps . . . 95 per cent of the financial flows in the financial markets are almost purely speculative and we have really got to look at how we can have better means of reducing the impact of speculation in a 24-hour trading market. '

Listening to him you realise that he is a man of acute intellectual curiosity. But will this, as his allies argue, make him the natural choice to lead the Labour Party in the next century? He has overcome his innate shyness and is easier with the populist side of politics than he used to be.

This year, for the first time, he will seek the votes of conference delegates for election to the National Executive Committee.

His biggest handicap, some Labour MPs believe, is that Labour is unlikely to elect two Scottish leaders in succession. But he has made few real enemies. Perhaps this comes down, as one MP puts it, to a refusal to get drawn into personal quarrels, and - if such a term exists - his 'well brought up- ness'. Whatever it is, it inspires fierce loyalty among his friends. 'Be careful what you write about Gordon' said one Scottish MP last week, 'he's one of the good guys.'

(Photograph omitted)