GORDON Brown dominated Scottish politics for several decades. Now gone from the stage, he has left only memories and the issue of his legacy.
Brown is a fascinating figure – a very public person, but private; moral in his deliberations yet filled with caution; supposedly radical but profoundly conservative.
Kevin Toolis’s new play Confessions of Gordon Brown (on at the Pleasance during the Festival) attempts to get inside the mind and psyche of Brown. This is a potent idea and something writers previously explored with Blair, perhaps most notably in The Trial of Tony Blair, where he is seen to be haunted by the ghosts of Iraqi war dead.
Toolis portrays Brown’s personal tragedy – as a man of idealism being lost in the compromises and challenges of politics. Yet to imagine Brown’s plight as primarily one of personal demons involves reducing the political down to just the individual, and issues of motivation and conscience.
Brown’s political journey may be one of retreat and moral compromise yet equally as important is a much wider canvas. And that is about the soul of Labour and the condition of social democracy.
On a week when a Labour backbencher George Mudie asked what does Ed Miliband’s Labour stand for, the issue of soul is central to understanding any political party and its success or not. This influences what is imprinted in its DNA and who and what it gives voice to.
When Brown came on to the public scene in the 1970s, the air was filled with a faux radicalism and left posturing and preening. Brown fitted into this world very well, after a brief period when he rattled the establishment as rector of Edinburgh University (unlike Jimmy Reid in the same period at Glasgow University).
His writings in the 1970s in The Red Paper on Scotland, described in Tom Bower’s biography of Brown as “full blooded socialism”, are filled with the radical rhetoric of the age and references to the key left heroes such as Gramsci, EP Thompson and William Morris, but short of any specifics. Brown’s 1970s writings provided not one single hostage to fortune that years later Conservative Central Office was able to use against him.
Yet for all the shortcomings the seventies were filled with radical ideas on the left and right as the managed, ordered society of the post-war consensus slowly and bitterly collapsed. The radical left of this time explored such themes as workers’ control, participative democracy, decentralisation and the vexed question of how to address long-term British economic decline.
This was a period of enormous turmoil and at the same time intellectual ferment. While some Labour politicians such as Tony Benn were looking to develop a very different bottom-up socialism led by workers and citizens, the radical right of Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph were beginning to articulate an alternative to what they saw as insular, over-cosseted state protectionism.
The outcome of this debate shaped the next 30 years in Britain until the recent financial crash and it is in relation to this backdrop that Gordon Brown’s political evolution has to be judged. Starting from within the mainstream body of Labour thought while borrowing radical credentials and platitudes, Brown’s adaptation to the post-1979 environment reveals how Labour, the left and values of socialism coped with a very different political set of realities.
Pre-1979 Labour politicians believed that the politics of the left and even socialism were going to be the future; the various trends were with them: a bigger, more powerful state, the expansion of education and opportunity to working class families, and the decline in deference for traditional authority. Post-1979 and the way the 1980s unfolded proved something very different, as Margaret Thatcher’s own moral creed and crusade remade Britain.
Labour reacted to this by a slow, painful retreat from the certainties of socialism to a more diluted social democracy, and as the 1980s came to an end, one of the leading advocates of this very different Labour politics was Gordon Brown, along with his friend and ally Tony Blair.
Brown was not an unwilling partner in the creation of New Labour, but active and fully signed up, at points because of his background in the party, even more evangelical for change than Blair. It was, for example, at an early stage, Brown rather than Blair who became enraptured with the idea of Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” and such ideas as workfare.
In this public transformation from man of the left to that of the establishment, how did Brown convince himself, let alone others, that this was the right path? Was this, for example, a very Scottish or Scottish Labour conceit? That is one of the fascinating questions about Brown as his actions over the years have given hints that he experienced some degree of cognitive dissonance between his beliefs and actions.
Towards the last few years of New Labour, whether it was speaking to a Scottish audience or his well-received speech to London citizens in the midst of the 2010 election campaign, the authentic Brown seemed to be the old style missionary man called forth once more to talk in an almost Biblical language. The trouble was for some people the torturous connection between Brown’s ideas as he saw them and his record in office and the difference between the two for which he offered little explanation.
Some people even got the impression that in modern day politics voters prefer a politician they perceive as a liar (Tony Blair), albeit strong, who can deceive himself, to one who comes over as a hypocrite (Gordon Brown) who doesn’t completely persuade himself, and can be seen to struggle with the truth and is weak.
It leaves us asking who was the real Gordon Brown and does anyone know? Indeed, given the issues of self and authenticity, does even Gordon Brown himself know the answer.
Yet in an age of actor politicians do any of us know who the real Tony Blair, David Cameron or Alex Salmond are? And what does it say about us that all of these considerations still seem to matter more when it comes to Gordon Brown?