The legend of Gordon Brown

Brown: Influential, once

Analysis by Maurice Smith


At the height of the independence campaign, as Gordon Brown paced the stage during his carefully-choreographed interventions, my attention was drawn to the faces of the party loyalists who had been co-opted into the act.


They sat behind him, dutifully holding their “No Thanks” placards and seemingly engrossed while the Great Man burped and farted through a familiar litany of rhetorical threat and constitutional half-promise.


Each intervention was billed as a major one, of course. Here was the Saviour of the Union, called in at the 11th hour to seize Scotland back from the jaws of narrow nationalism.


A desperate Westminster establishment had projected the Bat-sign over Gotham, and there was mighty Brownman ready to leap from his den in faraway Fife, where he took his rest from saving the world.

The 'clunking fists' ready for action
The ‘clunking fists’ ready for action

Really, what are we to make of the mythology of Gordon Brown?

A man who has spent his adult life assuming that his would be a great destiny, yet who fell short of his own vaunting ambition at almost every major hurdle.


Here was a Labour Chancellor who began politics a firm socialist with a desire to achieve sweeping social change, yet who ended up destroying the value of ordinary people’s pensions and savings and whose kowtowing to the banking lobby ended in the unmitigated chaos of 2008.


Worse for many, here was a machine politician who devoted years in Government actively destabilising his own leader in a determined campaign to assume his mantle, doing so finally in 2007 without having to undergo the inconvenience of a general election.


When the British electorate finally got the chance to elect Gordon Brown Prime Minister, they seized it to throw him out immediately.


By any measure, Gordon Brown’s political career has been a failure. This is a problem for a man of 63 who spent his adult life pursuing that career.


If his period in office at the heart of the New Labour administration did achieve  anything – restoring the NHS perhaps – history has drowned that out with the more notable fiascos of “light touch” regulation and the bank bail-outs that followed.


Brown has been a beguiling character. In Opposition during the 1990s, and in Government later, he was surrounded by Brown-nosers and factionalists, many of them loyal to the point of blindness. Either you were for Gordon, or your life might be made hell for being against him. MPs were bullied, editors and journalists brow-beaten. In the end, the Brownie cult at 11 Downing Street concentrated their fire not on the Tories but on the occupant of Number 10.


Amidst all this grew the myth of the great Brown intellect at work, “endogenous growth theory” and all. The spin doctors, loyalists and Daily Record leader writers portrayed their man as someone to be respected and feared in equal measure.


He was, legend had it, a tortured genius, striding the world stage as a personal friend of Presidents, statesmen and Popes, Secretaries-General and NGO flunkeys. It was claimed – without irony – that world leaders only knew what to do about the banking crisis because Gordon told them so. He said, mistakenly, that he had “saved the world”,  indeed. But for whom, we might wonder?


And wait, but wait. Didn’t the great “clunking fist” make his final greatest mark with that belated intervention in the independence referendum?


Well that may not be Alistair Darling’s recollection, but it is certainly the message from behind the brooding walls and security cameras along the quiet street in North Queensferry where Brown has his lair.


Those extraordinary and ultimately quite meaningless speeches about “home rule” were made by a back-bench MP who rarely attends Parliament – describing himself previously as “retired” even though still collecting a salary – with little or no previous locus in the No campaign.


This was classic Brown. As he blustered around the stage, arms waving in speeches acclaimed as among his “best” by some commentators, the subliminal message was clear. Only the Great Gordo could save the Union.  His intervention seemed almost comical to the outsider, perhaps more because so many seemed to take it so seriously.


By September 20th, two days after the poll, Brown was live on TV – before  another group of bemused loyalists – expressing dismay that Cameron hadn’t stuck to the script on the dawn after a No vote. But why should he? Cameron hadn’t made Brown’s “promises”, Brown did.


His opening remarks were telling that day, as he recounted taking congratulatory calls from Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan. An ex-President and a retired diplomat. The people who really matter. The elite.

The Browns & the Murdochs - "victimised"?
The Browns & the Murdochs – “victimised”?


Brown’s behaviour in power – his truculence on the day of his Downing Street exit following the collapse of 11th hour  negotiations with the Lib Dems, his refusal to acknowledge Salmond when the SNP won Holyrood in 2007 – was never consensual.


He remained disingenuous. A man who surrounded himself with aggressive spin doctors like Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride, a man who consorted with the Murdochs but who claimed in the Leveson debate to have been their victim.


The man who was going to eliminate “the cycle of boom and bust”. The man who spent many years of New Labour Government seeking to undermine its democratically-elected leader. The man whose hesitancy and indecision in 2007 allowed the Tories to recover ground and win in 2010. The man who boasted of the “light touch regulation” whose dark consequences all of us still live with in the form of economic depression many years later.


And now, the man who brought us “The Vow”, of course.


The great political genius that was James Gordon Brown, MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, has turned out to be one of the great political let-downs of his generation. Britain and many of its citizens are still living with the consequences of his failures.


Now he is to retire from politics.


Seriously, will anybody but the most deluded Brown speech-writer even care?