The curious case of Gordon Brown


by Kenneth Roy

For my own reasons, I remember the week well. The other half of my professional life is concerned with the organisation of courses for young people, and the week in question happened to coincide with one of these courses south of the border. The programme director, anxiously scanning the headlines, confided in me that she was concerned that our Royal Bank of Scotland cheque, for many thousands of pounds, made payable to the conference hotel, would not be honoured – not because we had no money in the bank to cover it, but because the bank itself would be bust by the end of the day. It seemed a real possibility.
     Only now do we realise just how real. Gordon Brown has revealed that at 5am on 8 October 2008, he asked his wife Sarah to pack their bags ‘for a sudden move out of Downing Street’. Two hours later, the chancellor, Alistair Darling, unfolded his daring plan to rescue British banking and the UK government simultaneously: a £400billion bail-out.
     Would it work? As the world financial system trembled on the brink, no other government had had the bottle to attempt something on this scale. Had it failed, Mr Brown would have resigned as prime minister instantly, the banks would have closed their doors, the cashpoints would have stopped spewing out notes, and our cheque to the Lancaster House Hotel would have been worthless.

It has become fashionable to write him off as a dud, the man who brought the economy to the point of collapse.

     What would have happened then?
     This is surely one of the great unanswered questions of modern history. Yet Gordon Brown’s new book, ‘Beyond the Crash’, has been barely noticed and, by those who have noticed it, has been dismissed as dull, plodding and over-long. More excitement has been generated by shallow, gossipy tomes chronicling the last days of New Labour than by this serious attempt to analyse the nature and causes of the crisis.
     The sense of ‘so what?’ about the publication of ‘Beyond the Crash’ says more about the standing of its author than about anything else. He disappeared from the stage so swiftly that it is difficult to believe that, a mere nine months ago, Gordon Brown was the star of the end-of-the-pier show called Britain. He has been relegated to the role of a shabby has-been, no longer a tour de force but forced to tour, once the leading man of brooding countenance but now with the unmistakeable odour of failure.
     Not for Mr Brown the instant bounce-back of Tony Blair with all those charitable foundations, the portfolio of mansions and the staff of hundreds, the sheen of elder statesmanship, however bogus and absurd. Mr Brown, in humbling contrast, dwells in North Queensferry with a view of the Forth Bridge and ceaseless traffic, but going nowhere very interesting himself. He can be imagined darkly contemplating his fate and pondering the ingratitude of the world.
     Five months after his defeat, I was briefly in the same room with him as he spoke to a group of children. He looked puffy and heavy-eyed, not really very well; his suit seemed a little tight; he carried himself in a leaden way. No doubt his friends will assure me that he is buoyancy personified, buzzing with ideas and initiatives. I can only report faithfully the impression he gave.
     As we have observed with the scant reception for his book, he continues to get a poor press. It has become fashionable to write him off as a dud, the man who brought the economy to the point of collapse. The well-known ballroom dancer, Miss Widdecombe, suggested the other day in her Spectator diary that Mr Brown owed the country an apology. Perhaps she does too, though only for her performance on the dance floor.
     I am not qualified to judge the scale of the former prime minister’s culpability, relative to the greed and ineptness of the banks or the influence of global movements outside the control of any domestic government – I must leave that to people like Alf Young. But it may be worth pointing out what is rarely pointed out – that, actually, the colossal bail-out did work, the banks did not close, the cashpoints continued to spew out notes, and the Lancaster House Hotel got paid. For a last waltz, it wasn’t a bad effort.

It does seem a pity that a man of his ability is so little employed. He needs a big job. Like the rest of us, he deserves a second chance.

     ‘The UK’s problems were enormous,’ wrote Joseph Stiglitz in the Financial Times, ‘and, in my judgement, the success of Brown’s response should have been widely recognised.’ The United States had been ‘paralysed’; only Brown knew what had to be done – and did it. This friendly judgement seems not to be widely shared; it is certainly seldom articulated. But it is possible that history will be kinder to this perplexing Scot than present ephemeral opinion suggests.
     Even the political legacy is not quite the catastrophe that had been set out for him by the media. It is instructive to look back at the super-confident predictions made during the election campaign that Mr Brown was an electoral liability in the class of poor, duffel-coated Michael Foot, that Labour was heading for a defeat of cataclysmic proportions, that the party would be out of power for a generation. In the tremendous intrigue and excitement that followed the inconclusive result last May, it was easy to overlook the surprising fact that a Labour rout was avoided and that the party did rather better, at least in terms of seats, than most of the pundits had prophesied. A haul of 258 seats at the end of three terms and 13 years in office was a far from disgraceful outcome for a man so universally derided.
     I don’t expect that, if there is a rehabilitation of Gordon Brown’s reputation, it will come – to borrow the cant of the age – ‘any time soon’. But it does seem a pity that a man of his ability is so little employed. He needs a big job. Like the rest of us, he deserves a second chance. Whenever I think of him, I think of the cheque that could so easily have bounced.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.