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THE ODYSSEY OF GORDON BROWN

The Times, November 8th 2006

 

Gordon Brown was quite young when 'this guy comes to the door of the manse.' His parents have popped out, but he's well-schooled: to a parishioner in need you offer help. He's seen it again and again - his father, the Reverend John Brown, dispensing food, money and advice to the poor. The morality is in his blood. He hears it from the pulpit twice a day on Sunday.

'So as my parents taught me, I say, what do you want - help yourself! And when they come back, the town's most notorious burglar is sitting in the kitchen (the chuckle wells up) but only taking food!'

Not the family silver?

'No, we didn't have much to lose there! But it was very funny that I'd invited in somebody who normally broke in.' It's impossible not to join in his full-throated laughter. Then he adds, 'There's a group of people, you know, who when they come out of prison just offend to go back in.'

The tale, and the manner of the telling, reveal much about the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The sheer quantity of the laughter all through our first interview surprised me, but his swift segue into the social lesson of the anecdote did not. Neither self-conscious nor overly didactic, it demonstrated an understanding of that long-ago miscreant off the street in windy Kirkcaldy - and a need to teach me too.

We were at the Labour Party Conference, where, over three days, I began my Gordon Brown trail, which ended last week at the Treasury. I watched him at social events, interviewed him twice, read his volume of speeches (all good stuff, with admiring introductions from the likes of Kofi Annan and J.K.Rowling), talked to people about him – and, with absolutely no preconceptions, became fascinated by the strong feelings he provokes. A cynical friend said Brown would only be pleasant in order to manipulate me. Some people spat out his name, but at a Number 11 event he hosted for the London Child Poverty Commission, people working for charities dealing with poverty, disability and development gushed private praise with the fervour of the converted. Three powerful women, one a waspish columnist, one a distinguished broadcaster and one a Labour MP, told me how very sexy they find the Scot who would be Prime Minister. (Actually, ladies, I rather agree; it's the combination of power, intellect and that accent – yet it doesn't work with John Reid.)

Bemused that people sneered at his heinous habit of hauling serious books on holiday (why wouldn't you?), I puzzled over the 'psychologically flawed' criticisms from those who are, presumably, psychologically perfect. As someone who remembers internecine conflict in the Labour Party of the seventies I wondered why quite so much hot air was expended on the Gordon and Tony show - but knew, watching their two contrasting performances on Conference platform, which one rang more true with me. 'Project Gordon' is the name given to what many pundits see as uneasy efforts to 're-brand' the Iron Chancellor to face up to charming young Mr Cameron. My own Project Gordon was to assess why – and if – that is necessary.

Let others assess his achievements as the longest-serving Chancellor for 200 years; my interest begins and ends in story - the archetypal narratives of human experience. Seeking what makes GB tick I don't, in the end, dwell on his long, careful replies to political questions, because you couldn't put a cigarette paper between his public views and those Tony Blair might express. Instead, like a fundamentalist to the Bible, I turn for signposts to one of the most brilliant books of recent years, Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots. Of the great Quest in literature, Booker writes, 'Our interest centres on the hero's long, difficult journey towards some distant, enormously important goal.' This always begins with a 'call', then comes the long voyage during which the hero and his companions have to face obstacles and transforming experiences, before the final confrontation. And the goal? To succeed to the kingdom, of course.

The Call

When, to explain his values, Brown invoked his parents in his Conference speech, this was more significant than the 'son of the manse' cliché can encompass. He finds it hard to talk about them - still bruised by the 'finality' (a word he used to me three times) of their loss. 'My mother only died two years ago; my father in 1998, so in the time I've been Chancellor they've both died, and it was never my intention to draw my memories into the public arena. But people need to know what I stand for. You've got to explain your background and on that basis people may understand me better. I don't feel that talking and talking about yourself is…...mm…People need to judge you on what you do, but they do want to know why you do what you do.'

That John and Elizabeth Brown instilled a sense of morality in their three sons is well known; that there was nothing dour or Calvinistic about their home life is not. When I ask if the little GB had to be 'good,' he chuckles that his home was 'very easy going'. His father's religion was based on faith, hope and charity; John Brown's voice speaks constantly through the politician son when – both times we talked – he evangelises the West's absolute moral duty to help the poor elsewhere in the world, especially Africa. If I had to isolate one overwhelming impression of Brown, it is this passion - the sermon he returns to again and again, fuelled by the conviction (for example) that no right-minded, compassionate person could know that it would only take £60 a year to educate an African child and not want to give it. When I question whether the average punter - or the constituent who only cares about having a clean, efficient hospital - really 'gets this, he looks at me in disbelief. His parents taught him boundless optimism and the belief in things greater than yourself – so that's how it is.

If a happy childhood watching the two most important people in his world devote themselves to service formed Brown, the rugby accident which cost him the sight of one eye was the first major obstacle he had to overcome – and probably most shaped the kind of politician he is. In Manchester he brushed off my prompt that it must have been awful with a jovial, 'A bit of a shock!' But next time he raised it unprompted, in the context of believing in people's undiscovered potential (one of his big themes) and why he went into politics. 'I was brought up in a household where we talked about these things…I mean…I….spent a lot of time in hospital with the eye injury. And I think, one route closes to you, like playing rugby and football, so you've got to think very clearly about the routes opening. Then you decide that some things have to be more important than others. Remember I was in and out of hospital for about five years from 16, and the last operation was the worst one because I was in danger of losing the sight of what was my good eye too.'

Eye surgery (in his case for detached retina) is known to cause trauma, especially when long immobilisation is required, as it was with Brown. The superb sportsman, the team player was compelled to settle into a long, solitary, dark stillness, during which the sense of loss would have been compounded by the fear of blindness. All the considerable power of his mind would have been focussed on coping with unruly destiny; in those circumstances concentrating on the inner world is the only means of survival. Sense must be made of what has set you apart from your peers; the inevitable 'why me?' will (in a strong character) lead from an issue of victimhood to a sense of being chosen. You see this still on his face - provoking familiar adjectives like 'dark' 'brooding' and 'obsessive'.

I think it explains his slight awkwardness, as well as accusations that he is impatient with matters (and people?) he can't immediately master. The powerful inner world is often at variance with the external; what's more a person is not 'clubbable if they've had to focus on themselves as the 'club.' Gordon Brown expects attention, for that's what you get as a hospitalised teenager. Did he dream then of becoming Prime Minister? I doubt it. The 'call' was to challenge authority and to do his duty in public service, because his father taught that 'people working together can change things for the better – part of an optimism about human nature.' But all that necessitates facing down monsters, and the tough thing for GB to acknowledge is that some will be beyond control.

The Journey

When I start a question with 'When you're Prime Minister…' he shakes his head: 'I don't assume anything.' It's quick. These are careful times, as proved by his fairly bland answers to questions I thought I should ask. For instance, I hate that the government in which he has played a pivotal role has (seemingly) ushered in an era of 24 hour drinking, of extended gambling as well as giving the nod to cannabis. Isn't it all at odds with Presbyterian upbringing? The answer should be 'yes,' but he's at pains to lead me to the liberal position on choice: people working unsocial hours wanting to go to the pub when not working and so on. Saying he is 'very anti drugs,' whilst with gambling, 'We've got to get the balance right,' he points out how much the world has changed since he and I grew up. Why, in his house they had to read Sunday papers on Monday! Again and again, in the two interviews, he returned to the belief that people will understand, they will want to do good, they will use their rights responsibly – and if they don't they forfeit those rights. Look at history he says; Britain was the first to pioneer ideas of tolerance and liberty. After just five minutes of this you agree – not because you're browbeaten, but because his pride in this Britishness is entirely contagious. And anyway, our national treasure of binge drinking seems a world away from idealistic Planet Gordon.

What of his own history? The brilliant, half-blinded boy – excited at A level by the 1909 Budget when brave Lloyd George rode his lance at the House of Lords - becomes (by means of an arcane rule) Rector of Edinburgh University at 23, and takes on the University establishment. It was a popular triumph amongst his peers; pretty girls wore 'Gordon For Me' T-shirts; he learnt to play hardball with a nice line in rabble-rousing indignation. On the great quest the Hero requires companions (think of Frodo and Sam, Ulysses and his shipmates) and Gordon Brown's early ones matter. It's a mistake to think of him as influenced only by his famous, protective coterie (Ed Balls et al); the touchstones for who he was/is are those he grew up with, and these give him conviction. No matter what the press says, or how Charles Clarke inveighs that he must be 'authentic' he knows that, as long as the people back home are with him, he's OK. He tells me 'I have the privilege of representing people I grew up with', and 'I feel I will never lose touch with these roots, and no matter what else happens to me there is a continuity – a thread that runs though my life which is totally consistent.' I sit with this man-who-would-be-king for a total of two hours and listen to his views (all interesting, of course; you'd want to sit next to him at dinner, though you have to interrupt alpha-males) and it's clear that two things matter most: where he is from and how we deal with events a millions miles from where he's from. This cannot be faked.

What links them is an idea most tellingly expressed in literature. When, in Manchester, I cited Thomas Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' to illustrate his point that the history of human kind is littered with unfulfilled potential, I was unaware of his passion for the poem. Excited, he launched into lines, then looked at me for verification. I couldn't oblige; he knew it better than I did – and it was odd to be out-quoted by the great Taxer. Later he was talking about the interdependence of peoples (for example, leaving aside the suffering of children, if we don't address the open sore of Africa, Al Quaeda will – as it already is) and I murmured, 'We must love one another or die.' He sat up eagerly: 'Yes, but it's also that poem Auden wrote about Spain in 1937, when he talks about seeking 'the Just City'. It means we are all going to live together, or we're going to die. It's this sense of interdependence. But also of belonging.'

So the boy who belonged enough to let in the local burglar, travels to the biggest slum in the world, outside Nairobi, and sees not just at needs to be done to help those people but a confirmation of the human spirit: 'so much happiness there too.' With a large architectural structure reminiscent of a GB speech, the Auden poem explains that history means nothing without individual responsibility: personal involvement and risk. Without this the 'Just City' - the ideal of Presbyterian Brown - cannot be built. And if the struggle, the quest for justice and fairness, fails (through a lack of political will), then 'History to the defeated/ May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.'

What constitutes defeat for a man like Gordon Brown? Succeeding Tony Blair will not be the final battle. The archetype requires more. According to Booker, the hero is 'gradually tempered by his ideals into learning how to direct and discipline his strength single-mindedly toward one end.' Yes, we've seen that. Still, 'he must develop his awareness and become master of himself until nothing can stand in his way. But…he must show that he is entirely light, by his inward openness to the feminine, so that he is using his strength in the service of …the whole.' Too touchy-feely for the Chancellor? Yet it's a meaningful point, and he must listen. The biggest test will be whether he can heal his party and work with people he doesn't like. He tells me he will. Does he fully understand that if he does not, he will fail?

It's fun to play with the quest analogy. In no other type of story is the hero faced by such a range of dark, familiar figures. There is the tyrant clinging on to authority – who has to be Tony Blair. There's the witch or dark queen – the one next door, of course, who refused to play the politeness game when she should. Then there are the 'dark rivals' who become increasingly prominent as our hero nears his goal – and we have yet to see how many will gird on the armour to take on the Iron Man. Battle must be done and obstacles faced – for example, the confrontation in the restaurant 'Granita' when Gordon Brown agreed to stand aside in the lists for Tony Blair. That monster still breathes fire, albeit more wearily. Temptations abound on the journey too. The Watson plot represented the politics of the closed court, the seduction of the arras - and even if Brown tells the truth in saying with flat finality, 'I had nothing to do with that', the fact that so many people disbelieve him is a small dragon at his white charger's feet.

A far bigger temptation is that of the world - all the seduction of 'rebranding': as if politics was about marketing and nothing else and its significance ended with a choice of red or lilac ties. The intensive intimacy of modern media demands user-friendly politicians; reality TV in the House – and yet for purists like me, it debases the process. For instance, I may think David Cameron an interesting man, yet his snowy stunt was slick, unserious. Considering this issue GB becomes confident: 'This point about celebrity is that a lot of politicians model themselves on other successful ones, as if there is a formula – the correct spin and image creation, when you know you look the part, and do the things….a formulaic approach. I actually think that in the next few years politics will become more about character and people will judge politicians on whether they can deal with the big issues and not just perform on the small ones.' Surely he's thinking of Tony Blair, uber-master of 'spin and image'?

He launches into the bugbears of our lives: 'security, terrorism, what's happening in the relationship between religion and society. These are big issues, and they can't be dealt with unless we try togordon brown find an understanding of the relationship between the state and society and the way people are drawn into extreme action…The world is changing so fast that only the people who can understand and then act upon these big challenges are going to be able to answer questions that the public have about the pace of change around them.' This is his way of saying that David Cameron doesn't have the weight. Yet to the non-tribal observer, the gravitas of his statement: 'As a community we've got to hold to values which make it possible for us to live together – and live together well' transcends all the trivia. I resist the idea that Brown is 'unelectable' (as critics say) because to agree is to capitulate to politics as media game, in which image is all. Yes, he can seem out of time; thirty years ago nobody would have questioned the suitability of an experienced statesman of 55 to be Prime Minister, nor carped that he doesn't smile enough. Still, people are realising that these are far more complex, threatening times than when Tony Blair became PM - which is why the ship 'Project Gordon' needs to hold fast to the route of unfashionable seriousness and ignore the siren song of the Arctic Monkeys. But paradoxically, if he could market his laugh he'd be there.

The Goal

The great quest is more than progress towards a goal; the crucial part is what happens when our hero gets there. When Odysseus finally made it to Ithaca there was plenty to overcome; Gordon Brown's goal is not merely to inherit the mantle of Prime Minister at last, but to be chosen by the people to wear it in his own right. This takes us full circle into the personal/private domain – for he won't succeed (in both senses of the word) unless he allows more insight into the man his friends know. And this he still finds very hard. Sitting on the train with Sky TV's Kay Burley he seemed like a private person trapped in the bewilderment of an increasingly public life.

When certain commentators implied that he had somehow manipulated that interview to 'blub' (a toxic exaggeration) about the death of his newborn daughter Jennifer in 2002, in an effort to present a more human face - cynicism reached an all-time low. In fact he neither expected that line of questioning, nor wanted it to be broadcast. Yet it did him no harm; on the contrary, many viewers warmed to the glimpse into a private man in agony at the second great setback and most terrible disappointment of his life. Anyone who loses a child is marked; a man who has waited until middle age to become a father and then has to sit with his wife watching his first-born die is changed utterly. That ever-present grief, and his delight in the miracle of two sons who followed, offers, I believe, the most important clue to who Gordon Brown is now.

'Has what makes you tick shifted?' I asked and he said 'Yes,' but then explained in terms of his renewed optimism in 'the potential of what can happen if you get things right.' What about having a family? 'Ye-eah… mm…if you're talking about me as an individual rather than what I'm doing as a politician (But of course I was, Mr Brown! Why always separate them?) … then…I think…having two children…(deep intake of breath, and he corrects himself)…two boys…just alters you, because the meaning of the day is completely different in that you're taken up with your children, you're talking to them all the time, and at the end of the day there's the joy of actually going back and seeing them.'

The night before he'd rushed away from the reception at Number 11 because it was John's third birthday, 'and it was the point at which he'd exhausted all his energies and I was able to see him before he went to sleep.' In his meeting room he shows me a framed picture of John taken recently on his first day at school, showing with glee how the face is beaming with excitement but the little hands are clasped nervously in front. He says this twice, and later shows me again, poring over the colour snap as if it were the most significant document of State, and making sure I notice those hands. He's like somebody who stumbled into paradise, and can't believe that he – the intellectual heavyweight - found it without a map. Later, when his wife Sarah interrupts us with three month old Fraser in a baby sling, I talk to her about her charity Piggy Bank Kids, founded in memory of Jennifer– but out of the corner of my eye I'm watching Brown pick up his son with big gentle hands, and nestle that familiar chunky face against the tiny head. The man is – quite simply – transfigured.

Sometimes the search for meaning within a traumatic experience becomes a goal bigger than the one you thought you had. I suspect this is the case with the Chancellor – and it may yet confound those who do not wish him to succeed. When I asked him if he feels permanently changed by the loss of his daughter, he answers with painful hesitancy: 'I think that what happens to you makes you consider…First, you ask how it could have been different. Then you ask what good can come out of the situation. And if some good can come out of what happened to us…then….I w-would like to think we could help…..(heavy sigh, then the characteristic jump outwards to the world)…You see, the work being done [in the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory] to help future mothers and children has already yielded important results, and you can see what a difference it would make - linking up with the rest of the world - to those countries where the loss of life in childbirth is so high.'

This is the authentic Gordon Brown - endearing in both vulnerability and seriousness. I began not knowing; now I'm liking the idea of a poetry-reading intellectual in Number 10, and wonder where you buy 'Gordon For Me' T-shirts. But his challenge is to allow the changes that have shaped his private life to influence, not just his political beliefs but his personal dealings with fellow parliamentarians as well. As well as clever, a leader must be big; he must realise that you don't necessarily have to talk gentle, you have to enact it. Yes, gentlemen - babies can teach you that, whilst the real, humbling lesson of the country churchyard is that we're all in this together, friend and foe alike.

And if, in the end, the electorate decides, for whatever 'just' historical reason, that it will not return him to Number 10? He will have failed to achieve that ultimate goal, but the major lesson learned along the journey might just be that it's not the most important thing after all. Certainly not the worst.

 

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