It is not unusual for political autobiographies to generate newspaper copy, but rarely do they produce the outpouring of news and comment devoted to Gordon Brown’s My Life, Our Times. It has been impossible to turn to the news pages lately without encountering his revelations about US perfidy on the sharing of intelligence on Iraq, his account of the 2008 financial crisis or his version of the deal struck with Tony Blair that determined the Downing Street pecking order.
Meanwhile, acres of newsprint in the opinion pages have seen columnists dismantle the former Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath MP’s character as well as his version of history, while dismissing the volume as a lengthy exercise in self-justification by a rather bitter former Prime Minister.
So it was difficult to approach this book without the expectation that Brown’s story would be told against the sound of grinding axes and a self-pitying whine. Happily those fears were not always realised, although to suggest that these memoirs are free from the grumble of self-vindication would be a gross exaggeration.
The book begins with an earnest preface and introduction, which outline his political philosophy while drawing on thought-provoking analogies – some of which will be familiar to those who have sat through his speeches.
From there, Brown turns to his childhood in Fife – an account that is eminently readable yet curiously detached. His love of Raith Rovers apart, there is little here of a personal nature. Despite his obvious love and respect for his Kirk minister father and his mother, there is a frustrating lack of insight into “a middle class upbringing in Middle Scotland in the middle of the century”.
The trauma of losing his sight in one eye following a schoolboy rugby injury is told in matter of fact terms, as is the potentially devastating threat of losing his sight altogether when he suffered a problems with his good eye.
Perhaps some explanation for this can be found in the most intensely moving passage of the book – the section which deals with the death of his first child, Jennifer, when she was just ten days old.
“I was brought up to keep private emotions to myself – that was called for at all times,” writes Brown, in a part of the book which reflects on the abiding love and loss felt in the most difficult circumstances. His description of the sense of completeness that fatherhood gave him followed by the sense of emptiness following Jennifer’s death is a most eloquent tribute to a dearly loved daughter.
As one might expect of someone with Brown’s intellectual gifts, his autobiography is fluently written, and despite his reputation as a brooding and moody politician it is not without humour.
Take, for example, his remark on the so-called Granita deal with Blair (which he reveals had been thrashed out before they sat down at the now infamous eatery). “The restaurant did not survive; and ultimately neither did our agreement,” is his wry take on it.
But the odd witty observation cannot detract from the intensity of his obsession with politics. His displeasure at Blair’s betrayal when it came to the No 10 handover cannot be disguised, and this is one of the instances where a loud note of self-pity can be heard. Even so, Brown’s version of events fails to do justice to the dysfunctional nature of what had become an incredibly fractious relationship and one that was paralysing government.
By contrast, his account of the banking collapse almost qualifies as gripping, and there will be many dismayed by his recollection that he observed no contrition from the former RBS chief executive Fred Goodwin for his role in the disaster.
Of particular interest to Scottish readers is his version of the 2014 referendum and his role in the creation of the “vow” to deliver more powers to Holyrood, as well as his rousing eve of poll speech articulating a patriotic case for No.
Ultimately, this book will go down as is a formidable memoir. But, like its author, it is not without flaws.
My Life, Our Times, by Gordon Brown, Bodley Head, £25