My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I liked Gordon Brown back in the 80s and early 90s when he and Tony Blair were the bright young things in Neil Kinnock’s shadow cabinet. After that though, after Blair got the leadership in 94, my opinion of the man drifted and I soon became disillusioned with the way he handled his burning ambition to lead Labour and become Prime Minister, and in particular with the way he treated Tony Blair.
I think everyone was disappointed with Brown, not least Brown himself. He surrounded himself with people who brought out the worst in him – people like Damian McBride and Ed Balls – and this was a real pity. Gordon Brown was an extremely capable and clever politician, he was dedicated to public service and whilst his ego and dark side often got the better of him, he was driven by a genuine desire to improve his country. Surrounding himself with tribal bullies was a huge mistake, and one that meant Brown could never get close to delivering on his enormous potential. For them, integrity was a luxury they couldn’t afford, they saw politics as a low and dirty game of day-to-day tactical battles and short-term little victories. Brown should have known better.
This book offers an interesting view of his short and shoddy premiership. It’s not the standard anti-Brown rhetoric we’ve got used to, but nor is it a fawning and sickeningly loyal account. I don’t know how accurate it is because I wasn’t in Downing Street at the time, but it feels solidly factual and like it’s genuinely trying to offer a fair and rounded picture. Sometimes it feels so fact-laden that it reads like a clunky list of facts bundled together into paragraphs of short disconnected sentences – but mostly it’s a fairly easy read and is neatly structured around short bite-sized chapters that split up his time as PM into chronological and topical episodes.
The book has a slightly affectionate tone. I’m not sure if they set out with this affection, or if the writers acquired it along the way. Perhaps scratching so deeply below the familiar surface, they saw a very different person than the hapless buffoon he became in the media.
By the time of 2010 election, Brown and his team really did think they could turn it around and cling on. Even after the election result, they are fighting hard to get Clegg to commit to a progressive alliance and Brown repeatedly offers to step aside to make it a more legitimate government. They fail, Clegg wants more time than Brown is willing to give, and he favours working with the Tories, not on ideological grounds, but on democratic arithmetic: Clegg believed that the election result meant that the Conservatives had to be given first dibs.
It’s a nice book, much more readable than many political biographies – e.g. Andrew Rawnsley’s stodgy tomes – and offers useful insight into leadership. Whatever else Brown was, he was a terrible leader of people and a dreadful administrator, but, despite this, I still left feeling a little sad and found myself wishing that things had gone differently in 2010 and he’d been given a second chance.