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My Life, Our Times by Gordon Brown

There is a wonderful cartoon by Max Beerbohm of George Bernard Shaw standing on his head, while Max himself, eyebrows raised, looks on from the side of the picture.

The caption reads: “Mild surprise of one who, revisiting England after long absence, finds that the dear fellow has not moved.”

Similar emotions are evoked by Gordon Brown’s memoirs. The dear fellow has not moved. All his old strengths and weaknesses are on display.

The word “dear” is apt. He is at heart a sensitive and loving man. One sees this in his account of the death, at the age of ten days, of his and Sarah Brown’s first child, Jennifer. Shortly before the end, the baby is baptised: “Sarah and I took our vows as parents to do everything to bring her up ‘in the nurture and admonition of the Lord’.”

Indescribable grief is admitted, not evaded. But more often one glimpses Brown’s sensitivity as he tries to hide it. There is a great pretence of not minding that his relationship with Tony Blair went wrong, when clearly he minds very much indeed.

Brown is a thin-skinned man who wants to seem invulnerable. He makes the dreadful mistake of reading the newspapers: “that morning, as I flicked through the pages of the Telegraph, I found an opinion column carrying a highly personal attack on me from John Major…it all leaves a terrible taste.”

He is writing here of the first morning of the expenses scandal, when the Browns themselves were under attack. But in his account of this day, he insists he was thinking more about four British servicemen who have been killed in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister apparently rose above his personal troubles and considered the much worse predicament of others.

Perhaps he did. It would have been the correct thing to do. But would it have been human? Somehow his account does not ring true, especially since, according to Brown, his wife was in danger of being drawn into the expenses story, because she had accidentally submitted a receipt twice.

It is hard, after a time, not to get fed up with his evasions. During his account of the banking collapse, he mentions that in the summer of 2008 Alistair Darling, a long-standing friend and ally whom he had made Chancellor of the Exchequer, “wrong-footed us” by giving an interview to the Guardian warning of the worst economic times for 60 years.

In Darling’s memoir, Back from the Brink, he describes how Brown was civil to him when they spoke on the phone after publication of this interview, given during a holiday in the Outer Hebrides. But Brown’s people fell on him without mercy, for he had contradicted Brown’s view that economic recovery would begin within six months:

“It was the briefing machine at Number Ten and Gordon’s attack dogs, who fed the story and kept it running. I later described it as like ‘the forces of hell’ being unleashed on me. That’s what it felt like. Damian McBride [Brown’s press man] was no fan on mine – he clearly disapproved of Gordon’s decision to appoint me as Chancellor. He used to look at me like the butler who resented the fact that his master had married someone he didn’t approve of. I’m not sure that he ever spoke to me.”

Brown mentions none of this. Every political memoir is in a sense expurgated, but his reticences are remarkable. He mentions Princess Margareta of Romania once, calling her “a friend of mine”, but not mentioning that while he was at Edinburgh University, she was for five years his girlfriend.

Refusal to kiss and tell is an admirable characteristic, but Brown will not acknowledge aspects of his life which have long been public knowledge. Again and again, the official voice takes over.

He describes Ed Balls, who started working for him in 1994, as “probably the most gifted economic thinker of his generation” and “in my view, a future prime minister” – an arresting thought. When one contemplates the dearth of talent on the Labour benches, one cannot help feeling Balls might still have a chance.

But at the heart of the book is an account of Brown’s own prime ministership from 2007 to 2010. He believes his time in office ended in failure “not because the policy was poor but because the communications were poor”. He had not mastered the art of Twitter.

This rather superficial analysis obscures the point that he should have gone for the Labour leadership in 1992, when John Smith got it, and again in 1994, when Tony Blair got it. Brown instead used his powerful intelligence to devise reasons for not going for it.

After becoming Chancellor in 1997, he implemented Bank of England independence: a secret plan of which he writes with relish. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But Labour was clearly right to choose Blair as leader in 1994. Since then, finding the right leader has been more problematic.

This memoir suggests a never resolved conflict within Brown, between the devout son of the manse, brought up to repress his emotions, and the ambitious politician, who knew he had to share his feelings, but found it almost impossible to do so.

Nor does the book act as a kind of belated liberation. In retirement from politics, Brown remains as stilted, self-righteous and obstinate as he was for most of his time in Downing Street.

Here is a man of tremendous abilities, who under the pressure of high office, cannot discover how to be himself, and now writes of his own father, the clergyman:

“Looking back, I marvel at his sense of contentment with life. Coming from a modest background – his father was a shepherd who had gone without full-time work in the 1930s – he often said: ‘Be grateful for what you have’…he went through his life without an enemy, something I cannot say of myself or anyone in politics.

But in justice to Brown the younger, one should record that although for much of the time he writes in the lazy platitudes of a professional politician, he has a good line in understated humour. While travelling on Concorde with Balls and a speechwriter to an IMF meeting in 2002, an engine blows out and the plane plunges thousands of feet. “Do you think there’s any point in finishing the speech?” the former Prime Minister recalls asking.

40 comments for: Book review: Gordon Brown has learned nothing and forgotten quite a bit

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