Gordon Brown: The Biography by Paul Routledge - review by Francis Wheen

Francis Wheen

One For The Lassies?

Gordon Brown: The Biography


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That definite article in the title looks rather presumptuous, not to say premature. Gordon Brown’s predecessor as Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, was the subject of two full-length biographies during his brief spell at the Treasury. Of the New Labour gang, Tony Blair and John Prescott have already been served up between hard covers, and several authors are said to be marinading and grilling Peter Mandelson. Can Frank Dobson and Michael Meacher be far behind?

The brilliant but now forgotten novelist B S Johnson once published a book called Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?, and a similar question could be asked of those lobby hacks who turn out quickie lives of contemporary politicians. Paul Routledge’s previous books – on Arthur Scargill, Betty Boothroyd and John Hume – were at least about people who had been around for a while and done a thing or two. Gordon Brown, by contrast, was elected to the House of Commons in 1983 and until last May had spent his entire parliamentary career on the Opposition benches. His record so far might make an interesting newspaper profile, but scarcely justifies 360 pages.

I mean no offence to Mr Routledge. His book is, like its subject, attractive and intelligent – if also rather dour and cautious. He does his best to persuade us that the real Gordon Brown is a livelier cove than the grim-visaged Iron Chancellor we see at the despatch box. As an infant, wee Gordon was ‘enthralled by the adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine’, and knew all the stories by heart when he was still only four. By the age of twelve, he was producing a homemade newspaper, the Gazette, for which he wrote this insufferably precocious editorial on the Tory by-election losses in 1963:

They [the Conservatives] must face the fact that this year may be their last in office for a long time….We should and must have a strong and reliable government, to promote our interests in Europe and the world. In Britain, too, we must have a less casual government that must take drastic measures in solving our unemployment, economic, transport and local government problems….Our status in the world today leaves much to be desired. I conclude, we can and indeed must have a more dynamic government.

It reads exactly like a speech by Gordon Brown circa 1996, and one isn’t surprised to learn that when he went up to Edinburgh University in October 1967, aged sixteen, he was the youngest undergraduate since the Second World War.

Brown is a very clever laddie indeed, with a Gradgrindian appetite for facts and figures. After entering Parliament, he and Tony Blair – with whom he shared an office – were quickly marked out as the bright boys of the new intake, and made Alan Clark’s ministerial life a misery at meetings of the Employment Committee. ‘I got into difficulties immediately’, Clark grumbled in his diary on 8 December 1983, after a session with the dynamic duo. ‘They were bobbing up all over the place, asking impossible, spastic questions of detail – most of them, as far as I could make out, to do with the fucking Rule Book.’ As Routledge comments, Brown’s favourite weapon has always been ‘a howitzer assault of statistics’. Should we conclude that Gordon Brown is the sort of prudent, efficient Scot who might make an excellent bank manager (or Chancellor) but wouldn’t necessarily be one’s first choice for a dinner companion or bed-mate? Not at all, Routledge assures us. ‘The thing about Gordon,’ one schoolfriend testifies, ‘was that he was good fun. I remember him always smiling.’ According to another old chum, ‘He was so happy-go-lucky and not dour at all.’ Oh, and you can forget those rumours about his sexuality. ‘As they say north of the Border,’ Routledge reports, with a roguish nudge-nudge, ‘he is one for the lassies.’ When he edited the Edinburgh student newspaper, it included ‘plenty of sexy women undergraduates and the occasional bare breasts’.

Why, then, is Gordon still a bachelor at forty-seven? The suspicion lingers that some potential Mrs Browns may have been put off by the fear of waking up every morning to his exhaustive analysis of the public sector borrowing requirement. This is, after all, the man who once tried to titillate an audience with ‘neo-classical endogenous growth theory’, a snappy catch phrase suggested by his adviser Ed Balls – which inspired Michael Heseltine’s quip that ‘it’s not all Brown’s, it’s all Balls!’

Routledge omits the endogenous-growth episode from his book. He is clearly a huge admirer of the Chancellor, and wants us all to share his admiration. Thus, in his opening chapter, a triumphant account of Brown’s first Budget, he points out that the fiscal arithmetic won applause from Gavyn Davies, ‘chief economist at Goldman Sachs merchant bank and one of the City’s most respected commentators’. What he neglects to add is that Gavyn Davies is married to Sue Nye, Brown’s chief of staff, and that the Davieses are regular holiday companions of Gordon Brown at the various villas and palazzi belonging to Geoffrey Robinson, the Paymaster-General.

One can understand Routledge’s desire to glorify his hero: beside the ghastly, vacuous grin of Tony Blair, Brown’s sober rectitude does have a certain charm. Nevertheless, even a sympathetic biographer shouldn’t take everything on trust. Routledge tells us more than once that Brown is fond of invoking ‘what George Orwell called “the British Genius”: “our inventiveness and creative talents, our adaptability, our belief in education and opportunity – qualities traditionally British, embodying values traditionally Labour”’. Splendid stuff – except that George Orwell never mentioned ‘the British genius’. In his famous essay on ‘Socialism and the English Genius’, he admitted that Scottish and Welsh reader would be offended by his implication that ‘the whole population dwelt in the Home Counties and neither north nor west possessed a culture of its own’. Nor did he praise our ‘inventiveness and creative talents’, let alone our ‘belief in education and opportunity’: in fact, he said that the English had no artistic or aesthetic imagination and were trapped in a rigid hierarchy of class and education. Attacking the ‘timid reformism’ of the Labour Party, Orwell demanded the immediate nationalisation of ‘land, mines, railways, banks and major industries’ and the abolition of the public schools.

If this is really Gordon Brown’s credo, perhaps there is hope yet. When the public grows weary of Blairism, he may be just the chap to rescue the dear old Labour Party – which at the moment resembles nothing so much as a stern maiden aunt dressed up as a Spice Girl. Although the new government presents itself as a congregation of happy-clappy, lovey-dovey worshippers, there are plenty of schemers and malcontents who will cause trouble sooner or later. When I wrote a particularly rude article about Blair recently, a senior Cabinet Minister greeted me with a gleeful wink and murmured: ‘Keep up the good work.’ It is common knowledge that Robin Cook and John Prescott dislike Gordon Brown; and, as Routledge confirms, Gordon Brown can’t abide Peter Mandelson. Attending a dinner with Brown, Mandelson asked if he could borrow ten pence to phone a friend. The Chancellor duly produced a coin. ‘Here’s twenty pence – phone them all.’

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