Reviewed by Liz Dexter
It’s the book everyone’s been waiting for that fills in the gaps left by Tony Blair’s autobiography and the various books on the financial crisis, the 2010 election and the fortunes of Labour. If you’re looking for a quick and easy read, this, to be fair, isn’t it: if you’re looking for detail, written in the main in a non-self-aggrandising way and without glib attempts at popularity, and information on exactly how the economy got turned around and then slumped, on the Scottish referendum and the Brexit vote, on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the division of labour in Labour between Blair and Brown and Brown’s honest appraisal of his triumphs, faults and failings, then you have come to the right place.
I’ve always been fond of Brown and felt sorry for him when he obviously struggled with the PR and personal brand aspects of politics. I felt he was an honest and decent man with a good moral grounding, a love for family and a penchant for hard work, and he appears to be all this in his autobiography. Of course all political autobiography is something of a PR exercise and he does protest a little too much about having been compelled by others to write it, but it offers an important record with none of the fluff (or terribly embarrassing rude bits) of others’ recent bios. He’s regretful about his time as PM not having gone quite to plan and takes responsibility for the loss of the 2010 election, in writing, against others’ advice.
We start off with a chapter on Brown’s upbringing and this really does explain his attitude and actions through his years in power and the public spotlight. He’s obviously honestly a very reticent, private and deep-thinking man who admits that he lacks the easy relationship with the public and social media that a head of state needs these days. It’s a shame, as he obviously forged excellent relationships with other heads of state and political leaders: real fondness for Barack Obama and the Australian PM Kevin Rudd shines through and he seemed to do really well at pulling the G20 together and making things happen about child poverty and education.
It is important to have a record of the great things that Labour did achieve in power before they fell, and Brown makes a good job of getting these put down, while making it clear that he had responsibility for the “economy, tax and public spending” and Blair for other aspects, including foreign policy (he does take responsibility, though, for example for not being more careful over the WMD issues in the Iraq War). He also blames himself for not being able to communicate to the British people the policies he espoused as PM, especially when working round the clock to avert a full depression after the financial crisis, when they were all too busy saving the world to tell anyone about it, leading almost directly to what he claims as ‘fake news’ put out by the Conservatives ahead of the 2010 election.
Brown takes a historical view as a scholar and author, and it was very interesting to read about the contrasts between the handling of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the 2008 financial crisis. Being able to draw such parallels makes this a book that will endure and be useful to future historians. It’s also very immediate, as when he describes his fear when financial crisis hit: “I could envisage in a few days’ time the cash machines simply not dispensing money in the morning”. He’s clear on his sources and obviously quite anxious about the ‘sofa politics’ of Blair’s reign, when nothing was recorded or written down. The Blair relationship pervades the book but you can see him trying to be fair. There’s an interesting moment early on where Brown tells Blair that “from my reading of history, no great friendship among the senior ranks of politicisms had ever lasted”. He meant that the break-up of their friendship was not inevitable and that they should do things differently, but he claims that Blair interpreted him as saying the opposite!
As well as the matters of historical record, Brown takes a long view on the development of Britain and globalisation, and as well as devoting chapters to wars and referendums, he ends the book discussing moral directions (I found this chapter very interesting as he covers a range of topics, talking about how his and others’ religious beliefs shape (or aren’t allowed to shape) policy decisions). He doesn’t offer any solutions apart from finding a way in which Britishness continues to pull us together – maybe that’s for another book.
It’s mainly, but not all, serious political and moral stuff. There’s not a huge amount about his family – we never find out how he met Sarah, as far as I recall, although he always talks of her with warmth, love and respect (and a little jealousy of her superior number of Twitter followers). He writes very movingly and appropriately about the death of their daughter, Jennifer, and the hounding of his family by the press. There are also lighter moments, for example stories of Tony Blair popping into the Treasury for a forbidden coffee after his heart surgery, or the Browns’ son asking generals to demonstrate their marching, or meeting the Queen. I also loved the fact that successive Labour chancellors have passed on a first edition of John Maynard Keynes’ “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”. These personal moments were lovely insights and I didn’t feel he was being forced to give away too much personal information.
All in all, a detailed, information-rich attempt to set the record straight and create a historical document by a decent and principled man who was not quite, in the end, of the right time himself.
Liz Dexter does like a political biography, although she never managed to struggle through Mrs T’s memoirs. She blogs about books and running (and not politics) at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home.
Gordon Brown, My Life, Our Times (Bodley Head, 2017). 978-1-847-924971, 499 pp., ill., hardback
BUY at Blackwell’s, in paperback, via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)