Ten myths about Gordon Brown

Hold on. Brown can’t just slink out of office without a final challenge to the idea that he was unspun, decisive and principled.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

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Gordon Brown is a man who can brighten a room just by leaving it, and he has now attempted to do just that to British party politics by resigning as leader of the Labour Party and as prime minister. June 2007 seems a long time ago. Then, those who were disillusioned by Tony Blair celebrated the coronation of Gordon Brown as if it was the second, more principled coming of the Labour Party. spiked, however, never bought into such delusional myth-making around Brown. Here are 10 myths about Brown we have consistently challenged.

Myth #1: He doesn’t care about celebrity

Blair was noted for his courting of celebrity, clearly hoping that a bit of stardust would rub off on the New Labour project, but Brown wasn’t like that, we were told. All that dry humping with Cool Britons at Downing Street would come to an end. Really?

In 2006, Brown discussed global education with none other than Lara Croft herself: ‘[Gordon] is somebody that I like very much and I hope he does have the chance to do more and more good things’, said Angelina Jolie. In summer 2007, Brown’s taste for celebrity went further than even old Tony dared as he pledged to form a ‘government of all the talents’ – he approached fictional business tycoon and factual TV star, Alan Sugar, to become a business adviser, and Fiona Phillips to be an adviser on something or other. However, Brown’s crowning celebrity glory was when he publicly enquired after the mental health of Susan Boyle after she failed to win Britain’s Got Talent: ‘I hope Susan Boyle is okay because she is a really, really nice person.’ Brown’s favourite TV show? Probably Shameless.

Myth #2: Brown is not all about spin

Blair, aided and abetted by his own Machiavelli and Rasputin, Campbell and Mandelson, was seen as the progenitor of spin. What mattered with Blair wasn’t so much what you said as how you said it. In contrast, Brown, if a BBC article from 2007 is to be believed, was ‘the serious-minded bank manager to Tony Blair’s rather flashier salesman’. Yet in many spin-happy ways Brown was more Blair than Blair. It’s just that he was rubbish at it. Where Blair could seem authentic, Brown just seemed really affected, right down to the ‘don’t be scared, children’ grin. In fact, no sooner had he got into office than Brown was sitting, like his predecessor, on the GMTV sofa, a (luke)warm-up act for the really memorable appearance on GMTV that morning: the ex-Beatles’ moll, Heather Mills McCartney.

Myth #3: Brown doesn’t care for moral grandstanding

Most people now agree that Blair’s moral showboating, his attempt at mock-heroic, conviction politics on the international stage, was really annoying. Brown wouldn’t do that, we were promised. But he did – only on a slightly different stage to Blair’s. Whereas Blair’s platform-for-posturing was Kosovo and later the ‘war on terror’, Brown’s was Africa. So in 2006, in an advert for his own moral authority, Brown went on a tour of southern Africa, complete with some British schoolchildren, before promising £15million for African schools. Then, at the start of his premiership in 2007, he declared that it is ‘make or break time’ for Africa and said that Africa was the most important issue of all for him. He then promptly forgot about it.

Myth #4: Brown is supremely clever

We have repeatedly been assured that Brown is exceedingly clever. But he’s hardly an intellectual colossus. ‘Boring, but very clever’, was how his brother John described him to his friends at university. He probably added the second clause just to soften the blow. Still it’s a myth that has stuck. But where exactly has this intellect manifested itself? His book Courage: Eight Portraits, where he discussed such controversial figures as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, was more trite than triumph. And his record in office either as chancellor or prime minister was hardly replete with intelligent decision-making, whether it was his sneaky abolition of the 10p income tax rate in his final budget as chancellor or, when it became clear this would hurt the less well-off, having to fight off a back-bench rebellion in his first year as prime minister. D’oh!

Myth #5: Brown was a brilliant chancellor

There is no doubting Brown’s longevity as chancellor – no one has served longer than his 10 years – but it was far from an era of untrammelled economic success. His most famous, and unfailingly repeated, boast that he’d put an end to the ‘Tory years of boom and bust’ was simply untrue. In fact, all he succeeded in doing was prostrating government before the City, and, as the asset bubbles grew and the speculators speculated and the money seemed to be sloshing around, Brown basked in the glory. Then, in 2008, the asset bubble popped, and what had looked like sound financial stewardship stood revealed for what it was: complacent and vacuous opportunism.

In fact, not only had the economy remained virtually stagnant under Brown (economic growth was actually greater under John Major’s Conservative administration), but there was a complete absence of investment in industries that might actually create material wealth rather than the appearance of material wealth. Throughout Brown’s tenure, the structural problems of the British economy, from the dearth of successful industry to decaying infrastructure, were never addressed.

Myth #6: Brown is not a personality politician

‘I think we’re moving from this period when, if you like, celebrity matters, when people have become famous for being famous. I think you can see that in other countries too – people are moving away from that to what lies behind the character and the personality.’ So said Brown in 2007. True to his beliefs, he began his reign at No.10 by whitening his teeth, combing his hair and getting someone to polish his shoes. And yet, again and again we were told that Brown was old-fashioned, out of time, a closed-down, austere man of good Presbyterian stock who would never do the confessional or the heart-on-the-sleeve intimacy beloved of Blair. And then, in February this year, he agreed to be interviewed by Piers Morgan and promptly started crying.

Myth #7: Brown is a man of substance

At the time of his coronation in 2007, Brown tried to ease the fears of those Labour supporters worried that his lack of charisma might cost them votes. The British public were more interested in hearing a substantial politician, like himself, discuss ‘big and serious issues in a way that does justice to them’, he said. Yet his substance has proved entirely elusive, an entity more talked about than seen. Sympathetic observers waited and waited for the substance to emerge. ‘Not a bad social democratic agenda’, said Labourite commentator Polly Toynbee in autumn 2008. ‘Give him longer and he’ll make his message clearer’, she chirped. And wait we did – and still do – for Brown’s message to become clear and for his substance to triumph over the fripperies of his opponents. He does like the Arctic Monkeys, though: ‘[They] really wake you up in the morning’, he declared to New Woman in 2006.

Myth #8: Brown has an Old Labour soul

Brown is an older, more stolid type of politician, a man closer in principle to Old Labour than to its ideas-lite successor New Labour, we were told. In truth, Brown was different to Blair in demeanour rather than principle. His political ascent was typical of the modern political class: fast-tracked to Edinburgh University, where he was something of a student celebrity; a bit of lecturing in politics at Glasgow; using his experience of student journalism to begin a career in TV news with Scottish Television; and then entering parliament in 1983 as an MP for Dunfermline East, a safe Labour constituency in its various forms since virtually the beginning of the twentieth century. This is the kind of ascent that forged the insular souls of all of the modern political class not the socialist firebrands of old.

Brown’s recent political career is built on the carcass of Old Labour. Indeed, the fact that he rules by clique, with his heavies Charlie Whelan, Damian McBride and Ed Balls, is itself a reflection of his isolation from any broad social movement or interests. Brown’s clique gained in significance as the social movement, the social basis of Labour support, receded beyond reprieve. Brown has no more possibility of being closer to Labour’s now withered soul than Blair does.

Myth #9: Brown is decisive

At the time of his accession, Brown was seen as the ‘iron chancellor’, a man who ruled the Treasury like a private fiefdom. He was the ‘clunking fist’, as Blair called him, a man capable of ruling decisively and strongly. As a government policy adviser put it in 1998: ‘Gordon would be a disastrous prime minister. A complete dictator.’ Yet as spiked argued in 2007, Brown was far from a strong leader. He was weak, indecisive, cowardly even. And so it proved as he skipped making decisions time and time again. And in 2007, he dithered over making a decision that might have saved him: calling an election which would at least have given him the opportunity of gaining a mandate from the people he ruled over.

Myth #10: Brown is all about world peace

If anything boiled the blood of Blair’s critics, it was the Iraq War. Brown claimed to be different – and some people fell for it. The ‘war on terror’ had been a counterproductive message, Brown announced. After he visited President George W Bush in July 2007, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland hailed ‘a shift not only in the so-called special relationship, but a deeper, strategic rethink in what Brown pointedly does not call “the war on terror”’. The Mirror’s Kevin Maguire followed suit: ‘[T]he nauseating Tony & George act that served Britain so badly went out of the window…’

And since then? Brown – who never opposed the Iraq War and in fact bankrolled it as chancellor – has enjoyed persevering with a bloody war in Afghanistan. A war for which he has given so many different justifications that no one in Britain, let alone Afghanistan, can say what it is for. All we know for certain is that Brown is as far away from being anti-war as it is possible to get.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics UK


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