'My Life, Our Times'. By Gordon Brown. (Bodley Head. 2017. £25)
The former Prime Minister’s memoirs are not quite the mammoth exercise in self-justification most commentators expected. They are arguably more moving at times than would have been thought – Brown writes well about his personal battles, including about the serious eyesight problems that dogged his career. And in some ways he is more genuinely reflective about his political actions and legacy than his predecessor.
Brown undoubtedly has both intellect and a certain, relentless focus – and at times this has served his well politically. He seems critically aware of some of the major dynamics and features of our times too. Writing of the major financial crisis that marked his Premiership, he says:
‘Bankers and boardrooms had awarded themselves bonuses they did not need for work they had not done and for risks they had taken at the expense of those who went without’. (p. 423).He is not wrong – but then this is also the man who had, against all the evidence of history, pledged to abolish boom and bust and even now fails to understand that the financial crisis was not caused by a failure of global governance but by the ‘animal spirits’ that are integral to the capitalist economy and its inherent cycles of creative destruction.
As always, Brown appears focused and intense – but only as a micro-reformist with a moral purpose. His response to a problem in government was invariably to introduce a tax allowance there, or provide a subsidy there, tinkering to give the impression of dynamic action when there is really little substantive movement or none.
Throughout these pages Brown uses phrases such as ‘we needed to get the job done immediately’ and ‘I set about the task straightway’ and similar, just to reinforce the impression of an Action Man at work. But even at a political level, this approach only appears convincing (if at all) when the waters are relatively calm, not when there is a uncontrollable storm brewing, let alone a gale force wind howling. And it was the headwinds of the financial crisis that blew Brown’s economic record – first as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister – to pieces, with a severe recession propelling unemployment higher when he left office than when he entered, and with income inequality little changed despite the decade and more of relentless tax system tinkering. Not forgetting an electorate so embittered within a short time it had voted to leave the European Union and almost to create a separate Scottish state too (both to Brown’s mounting concern and near horror).
Despite the differences that emerged between Brown and Blair over time, this book illustrates that one thing still unites them at least – a continuing failure to understand that the type of micro-reformism they espoused within the overall movement towards globalised capital is what has in large part led to the type of knee-jerk populism that now befuddles them. If Mrs Thatcher famously said that her most enduring legacy was Tony Blair, then the enduring legacy of Blair and Brown are the comedy book-ends of Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn, and yet they still don’t appear to understand why.