Gordon Brown is likely to be remembered as Labour’s greatest chancellor. Will his reputation as prime minister improve with time too? Spencer Livermore thinks so
Gordon Brown’s memoir has so far largely been viewed through the prism of his relationship with Tony Blair. Although Brown provides his own account of all that for the first time, both he and this book are worthy of more than a renewed bout of the factionalism that did so much to damage Labour in government. Given the profound challenges faced by progressives in British politics, we would all do better to reflect on our much-diminished position within today’s Labour party than indulge in the narcissism of small differences.
Much more useful than comparing Brown to Blair is to remember the tremendous success of their partnership – arguably the most successful governing and campaigning partnership in modern political history – and to compare it with what has come since.
This book is a valuable and timely reminder of what Brown contributed to that partnership.
It is not just Brown’s passion for social justice that shines from every page of My Life, Our Times, but the scale of his ambition. As he says, politics is ‘more than the art of the possible, it is about making the desirable possible’. Striking too is the scale of the achievements delivered from the Treasury: extending opportunity through SureStart and child trust funds; tackling unemployment – particularly youth unemployment – with the New Deal; the alleviation of child and pensioner poverty through tax credits; properly funded public services, particularly refinancing the National Health Service with a bold and popular tax rise; and cancelling debts to tackle poverty in Africa.
It is impossible to recall these successes and not regret how easily in the years since Labour left office the Conservatives have been able to dismantle and reverse so much of what we achieved. But, given the scale of what Brown accomplished in the 10 years after 1997, he is likely to be remembered as Labour’s greatest ever chancellor. Reading this account of his time in No 10, it seems possible that his reputation as prime minister will improve too.
Brown writes with candour about the difficulties he encountered and the mistakes made, particularly in the early part of his premiership. But it was in his response to the financial crisis, one of the greatest challenges any prime minister could face, that he made such a lasting contribution. At the G20 meeting in 2009, he was able to prevent it becoming a global depression. He succeeded because he made decisions with a profound sense of the national – often international –interest.
The prime ministers that followed him have done precisely the opposite. David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the Europe Union was purely about short-term, self-serving management of the Conservative party. Theresa May’s handling of Brexit has similarly focused solely on appeasing the xenophobic and insular hard right that is now so resurgent.
It is testament to how far we have fallen as a country that less than a decade ago we had a prime minister providing global leadership at a time of international crisis, yet we now have a prime minister who cannot even provide party leadership at a time of national crisis.
Spencer Livermore is a member of the House of Lords and former advisor to Gordon Brown. He tweets at @SpenceLivermore
My Life, Our Times by Gordon Brown
Bodley Head | 512pp | £25
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