Gordon Brown: My life, our times

By Gordon Brown

Penguin Random House

Not flash, just Gordon.

That was the (initially effective) slogan that accompanied former British prime minister Gordon Brown into 10 Downing Street back in 2007.

After what was perceived to be the spin-laden era of his predecessor, Tony Blair, Brown – who had become the UK’s longest-ever serving British finance minister over the previous 10 years – was seen as a safe pair of hands. Someone whose intellect and gravitas would underpin a period of stability. Someone who, having yearned and maneuvered for the top spot, would surely have a raft of ideas and policies waiting to be unleashed once he was finally ensconced in Number 10. That was the theory. The reality, however, was somewhat different.

Domestic missteps, the impact of global financial crisis and his seeming inability to adapt to changing times combined to ensure that Brown’s was a premiership only three years in length, one that ushered in an ongoing period of opposition for his beloved Labour Party.

Now, ten years on from when he became prime minister, he has published his memoirs. A weighty tome – perhaps reflecting his reputation as a serious politician for serious times – has landed in the bookshops. So, what do we make of it? Much like his political career as a whole, there’s both good and bad.

Let’s start with the good. The book serves as a vivid reminder of where he was most effective, such as granting independence for the Bank of England, keeping the UK out of the euro and, in particular, when he played a pivotal role in stabilising the global economy after the financial crash of 2007-08, and subsequently preventing a great depression. That’s a track record any leader could look back on with pride.

Unfortunately, he also fails to honestly explain where, how and why he went wrong. Brown freely admits that he never mastered Twitter, nor what he describes as the “touchy-feely” era he found himself in as prime minister. His comfort zone was (and presumably still is) a pile of economics books, one far away from the public spotlight.

But his attempt to blame his inability to get to grips with social media and the more trivial aspects of being prime minister (chat shows and the like) as the ultimate reason for why his premiership went awry simply doesn’t ring true. Nor does his claim that he only pulled back from an early general election in 2007 because he discovered Labour was running short on funds. Really? The fact that the polls had tightened and momentum was with the Tories didn’t have any influence on the decision?

Similarly, Brown has clearly nursed many a grievance over his time in politics. Tony Blair is blamed for supposedly going back on a deal to stand down at some point during his second term. And Brown still contends that had he stood against Blair for election as leader of the Labour Party in 1994 he would have won. (Very) few believe he would have done so.

Such failures to face up to reality are immensely frustrating for this is a book that soars in parts, yet deflates in others. An apt metaphor, perhaps, for Brown’s time in Downing Street.