Gordon Brown is motivated by public duty, moral mission and the idea of the greater good. One can go further and say that Brown is animated by his belief in, and vision of, the possibilities of a good society. He attracts dramatically divergent responses and emotions. There are those who feel he is motivated by decent intentions or who, knowing him and believing in what drives him, have a sense of loyalty and commitment to him. And there are those who have a visceral dislike and distrust of Brown, which includes a large part of who should be his most natural allies, the Labour Party.
The subject of Gordon Brown has always demanded a more nuanced response than the above black and white one. For example, while it is true that Brown's odyssey has been one of diluting any radical credentials from the 1970s and 1980s onwards, this is also the story of the British Labour Party and social democracy in the UK and globally over the same period. Maybe the anger felt by some towards Brown is a projection shaped by UK and global politics in the past few decades.
This week, Brown produced his much vaunted, and awaited in some circles, Commission on the UK's Future. This has now been exhaustively covered elsewhere: the scale and wisdom or not of its recommendations, whether the Labour leadership will adopt and champion them, and how they fit into the current political landscape. Here I will focus on three aspects: the nature of Brown's political odyssey, the multiple crises of Britain, and where they might be heading.
The four ages of Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown has been a public figure since the mid-1970s, over five decades. This period has seen many variants of Brown the politician which offer a guide into the state of Labour and centre-left politics in Scotland and the UK.
First in the 1970s there was 'Red Brown'. This is the Brown who was rector of Edinburgh University and who petrified the university's establishment with his calls for disinvestment by the institution from the South African apartheid regime. This stance was the real radical stand of Brown at the time, but he was also taking up fashionable new left postures, invoking radical chic, and citing all the 'in' left theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, without actually saying anything radical or of substance.
Brown's voluminous introduction to The Red Paper on Scotland
– published in 1975, which he edited – is filled with references and nods to Tom Nairn, EP Thompson and Gramsci, as well as with the radical impatience of youth (Brown was 24 at the time). But does Brown commit to any radical specifics such as widespread nationalisation or regulating capitalism which could be used by Tory Central Office in future years? There is, tellingly, across thousands of words, not one single specific radical commitment.
After this came the period of 'Red Rose Brown' – the period when he was a rising star in Labour, elected as MP for Dunfermline East in 1983, became part of the 'soft left' of the Kinnock era, and entered into a partnership with Tony Blair which was to pay dividends a decade later in New Labour.
'Red Rose Brown' went with the rising tide of a Labour Party bruised by its 1983 election humiliation and trying to reconnect with voters by emphasising its moderate middle of the road credentials, aided by professional PR and communications.
When Labour eventually won in 1997, and embarked on a programme of widespread constitutional reform, Brown became 'Union Jack Brown' as he attempted to identify and draw together a new story of Britishness and the union to give a coherence and purpose to these changes. Brown was also trying to stand on Tory territory about Britishness to prevent them from labelling devolution and other policies as 'anti-British', while also aiming to marginalise the SNP.
It is clear now with Labour out of office for over a decade (but seen by many as the favourites for the next UK election) that we have now entered a new phase of Brown – 'Elder Statesman Brown' – in which the party uses his wisdom and insights to help them navigate the challenges of office – including the broken political system.
One characteristic unites all these different periods of Gordon Brown. Throughout his public life in Labour and domestic UK politics, he has gone with the grain and the dominant trends. Hence, Brown was never, even in his 20s at Edinburgh University, a full-blown radical, Instead, when it aided advancement, he articulated and cited the radical left buzz words of the time.
After this he followed the trend of the Neil Kinnock-led Labour Party as it ditched its far-reaching Bennite socialist policies and moved to the centre ground. In the period after this, when Tony Blair became leader in 1994, Brown was the equal co-creator in the 'New Labour' project which expressly drew inspiration from Bill Clinton's electoral success in the US with the 'New Democrats'.
Today, we are in the era of 'Elder Statesman Brown', with his Commission on the UK's Future, alongside his Our Scottish Future think tank and range of international interventions. Both contain good work and intentions, such as addressing the broken nature of UK politics and democracy, but there is another constant which runs seamlessly through nearly all the periods of Brown.
Gordon Brown believes that key to addressing big issues is people understanding the correctness and wisdom of the analysis of one Gordon Brown. If anybody still has any doubt on this, two examples will suffice. The recently published report was one which Brown invented, drew up, ran and foisted upon the Labour leadership much to their chagrin. Keir Starmer and senior Labour figures felt they had no option but to sub-contract this initiative to Brown, and critically have given themselves the opt-out option of not signing up to all its recommendations.
Another is the Gordon Brown autobiography, My Life, Our Times
, which was published in 2017. This tells the compelling story from his childhood in Fife through a life in politics to the top of the Labour Party and UK Prime Minister. As Brown gets close to the top and reaches the office of PM, his belief in the self-evident truth of his own analysis grows ever stronger. Thus, on issue after issue when Labour is in office – public spending and services, taxation, child poverty – when there is debate or discussion, Brown thinks the way forward is for everyone to bend to his will and accept he is right. This does make his autobiography a revealing read, but not one which casts Brown in the best of lights.
Can the Brown prognosis change Britain for the better?
Brown's Commission on the UK's Future was launched this week to much fanfare. It is, in its 155-page report, a typical Brown creation, convinced of the enlightenment and relevance of his own proscription to address the malaise of a broken UK political system.
It is archetypal Brown in its reach and ambition: not wanting to go full throttle in embracing democratisation, decentralisation and modernisation of political institutions. It holds back from a complete assault and demolition of the ancien regime, parliamentary sovereignty and absolutism which sits at its heart. There are no formal legal checks and balances on what central government can and cannot do.
Brown is on form articulating what has been and remains the dominant Labour tradition of believing in the power of the central state to do good and advance progressive change. Brown and Labour in past and present believe in the party using a monopoly of political power in government based on a minority of votes.
That this has not served Labour or the UK well is neither here nor there; rather it is an article of faith. And so this report is a halfway house, trying to renew the existing political system and its principles, not replace it by building a new one. This can be seen in its advocacy of First Past the Post for the House of Commons, rejection of proportional representation, and dismissal of a codified, written constitution.
Gordon Brown has contributed immensely to the rich tapestry of British public life and tried to make the UK, its institutions and politics better and more aligned to the interests and needs of the citizens of the UK. At the same time, the long evolution of his thinking shows the retreat in ambition and radicalism of the British Labour Party from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, and its compromises with an unrepentant, anti-social form of corporate capitalism, which reached its apex with New Labour and we are still living in the aftermath of.
The multiple crises of the UK – economic, social, democratic, generational – are not going away any time soon. Indeed, in the next few years, they are more than likely to get worse. There is a high chance this will contribute to the election of a Labour Government by 2024 and be the environment in which it has to govern and make difficult, even painful choices.
In this one thread will be the connection between the UK's antiquated and in many respects 19th-century political system, its misrule of the UK and its capture at its centre by the crony capitalist insider class. Thus there is a direct link between the lack of democracy, alternative sources of power and decentralism, and the UK's economic and social shortcomings.
This is an analysis that Gordon Brown partly gets as he understands the inhumane, tragic cost of inequality, systemic discrimination and the power and arrogance of privilege. But, tragically, he has not been able personally to be an advocate for full-scale, fundamental change which, if he had, would have been of great service to party and country.
Instead, Labour are locked into looking both ways at the same time. They are appalled at the Tory vandalism to the economy and society, and their brazen corruption and looting of the public purse alongside the debasement of public standards. Yet, they cannot bring themselves to propose the dismantling of these rotten, self-serving edifices and propose that the UK becomes at long last a modern country.
Gordon Brown, for all his good intentions, is a deeply conservative politician, shaped by the values of the past and beholden to a 19th century rotten burgh political system. That is his tragedy and our loss.