A frank look at the Brown years

Gordon Brown: My Life, Our Times
The Bodley Head, £25
(Buy at Amazon)

Chancellor for a decade, and prime minister during the height of the financial crisis between 2007 and 2010, Gordon Brown’s decisions continue to have an impact today. Apart from an introductory chapter covering his early life, and a few at the end of the book dealing with his life out of office, the emphasis in his autobiography is very firmly on his time in government.

Brown is unapologetic about his interventions during the financial crisis, which he credits with saving the global economy. He similarly defends the large fiscal stimulus of the last two years of his government, and argues that his successors’ programme of austerity was ultimately counterproductive. One interesting revelation is that the government was beginning to have concerns about a possible banking collapse in the year before Northern Rock ran into trouble. Indeed, during 2006/7 it ran several secret simulations to help it plan possible responses.

One theme that comes through loud and clear is Brown’s dislike of Tony Blair. Brown clearly regrets his decision to stand aside in the 1994 contest to succeed John Smith as Labour leader, which Brown feels in retrospect he could have won. He then blames Blair for breaking a promise to stand down earlier than he ended up doing.

One big bone of contention between the two was over whether Britain would join the euro. While the material dealing with the decision is surprisingly brief, Brown portrays himself as generally in the eurosceptic camp, while Blair vacillated between support and opposition, before plumping for the former. Indeed, Brown claims his refusal to bend the results of his “five tests” that must be passed before Britain would join nearly cost him his job in 2003, and may have prompted Blair to stay on in office.

There are some surprising omissions. The most prominent is over the decision to ratify the Lisbon Treaty without the promised referendum. While the framework was agreed just before Blair left office, the final negotiations took place on Brown’s watch, with the signing taking place in December 2007. Given that it involved a major loss of power for individual nation states, it could be argued that this decision played a major role in Brexit. But overall, this is a substantial memoir that provides an insight into what Gordon Brown really felt during his time in office.

What the press said…

Gordon Brown’s memoirs “trumpet his achievements”, but he also acknowledges his mistakes and is good at describing the process by which an idea for reform is germinated, then shaped into a policy, says Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian. However, the book goes wrong when it focuses on the rivalry between him and Blair, “which so disfigured their time in power”. Brown fails to see that he spent too much time in the destructively obsessive pursuit of the premiership, a job that, when he finally got it, overwhelmed him.

“Brown can barely hide his sense of betrayal”, agrees Allison Pearson in The Daily Telegraph, and his book “amounts to 461 punishing pages of proof that Blair was right”. Brown “may have an excellent moral compass”, but when “it comes to normal human responses the mechanism is badly awry”. The early chapters about his childhood and university days are oddly detached, “almost perfunctory”, and “too
much of this long book reads like an economics lecture”.

If anything, Brown is too harsh on himself, says George Parker in the FT. After all, “his decade at the Treasury was marked by strong growth”. It’s also undeniable that “he rose to the challenge of dealing with the financial crash and it gave his premiership a hitherto missing purpose”. Still, the reader will be frustrated that Brown “fails to shine new light on some of the most controversial episodes of his career” and “resists the temptation to engage in much gossip”.

“There is a perfectly viable defence of Brown’s time in government,” agrees Phillip Collins in The Times. So “why does he do such a dreadful job of making his own case”? He laments the politics of division, yet that was his “sole method”. He regrets not being good at communication, but gives the impression the fault lies with democracy rather than him. He says he did have a plan on arriving in Downing Street, but still cannot say what it is. Throughout, the book is “bound by grinding axes”, as all the “blood feuds are aired again”. The book could have been a redemptive tale about where things went wrong that would have added to Brown’s achievements. What we get instead is piety and special pleading.