Prime Minister 2007 - 2010
The first Labour prime minister was James Ramsay Macdonald who took office in 1924. His election represented one of the greatest changes in British politics. And yet as Keith Robbins writes of Macdonald, his very success "meant that he would be unlikely to inaugurate a new style of government. A Labour prime minister seemed to be like any other prime minister" (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P279). This was particularly true after 1931 when Macdonald was obliged to form a coalition government in partnership with the Conservatives. Macdonald's Labour colleagues never forgave their leader for this. Today politicians are almost obliged to talk about change. They must inaugurate a new age, seemingly break with the past and offer fresh hope. And yet in reality British government has actually been more about not changing things. William Knox said in 1789: "When an opposition gets into office and the king trusts him with the exercise of his power, the farce is at an end, and after a few awkward apologies, and a few ineffectual votes with old connections by way of consistency, the business of government is expected to be taken up and carried on in the usual way" (quoted by Paul Langford in The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P 134). This contradiction is central to the story of Gordon Brown, a brilliant student who wanted to change the world. Then he went into politics and promised to change the Labour Party. And when this new Labour Party won power he promised to change Britain. But as William Knox said, if any young firebrand is to achieve high office, the farce must end.
James Gordon Brown was born in a nursing home in Giffnoch, Scotland on 20th February 1951. His father was a Church of Scotland minister at St Mary's Church, Govan's Cross, Glasgow. The family moved to the port town of Kirkaldy in Fife when Gordon was three, where they lived at 6 East Fergus Place. Gordon quickly emerged as a bright boy, excellent at sport, and politically aware from a young age. Like most youngsters he saw politics in terms of changing things. In a 1997 interview he said: "I grew up and became politically aware in the early Sixties when the Tory government was failing, and the idea of change - even for a twelve year old - was an important thing" (quoted in Gordon Brown by Paul Routledge P27). This boy who wanted to change the world started with journalism at an early age. At nine he was writing articles for his brother John's first attempt at a newspaper, Local News. By April 1962 the brothers had sold 500 copies of their four page Gazette, and raised £6 3s 9d for charity. Gordon was sports editor, but he also wrote about politics. Harold Macmillan's casual style as Conservative prime minister did not win approval in the twelve year old's writing.
Gordon was placed in the "E Stream" for top students at Kirkaldy High School. Although many of his fellow students did not cope with the E stream's relentless pressure, Gordon gained five A Levels with A grades at age 15. The following year he was to become the youngest student to attend Edinburgh University since World War Two. Inspite of suffering a serious eye injury during a rugby match, which disrupted his start at Edinburgh, he quickly established himself as a top history student. Of more concern to the university authorities was Gordon's interest in student politics. While future colleague Tony Blair sat around in his university room in Oxford putting the world to rights with his friends - as most students do - Gordon was actually getting on with the job. Working for the student newspaper he managed to gain information that the university had secret investments in apartheid South Africa. Under pressure from a campaign in the newspaper Edinburgh University was forced to admit that contrary to earlier denials, it did own shares in notorious South African mining corporations. The campaign ended with a sale of offending shares. This was only the beginning of a long running battle with the university's administration. In April 1971 students agitated for the right to apply for the position of lord rector on the university's governing body - the most senior position available. In a remarkable series of battles, Brown overturned established practice to become rector in November 1972. Once on the governing "Court" young Brown continued to stir things up with campaigns to make university governance more open and accountable, and to strengthen links between the university and city. University officials wheeled out the biggest guns that Edinburgh's establishment had to offer - one of Scotland's most senior high-court judges was called upon to prepare a case against the troublesome student rector. Brown, showing great determination and resourcefulness, fought back. He had connections of his own. It seems that through his girlfriend, Princess Margarita of Romania, he managed to recruit the Duke of Edinburgh to his cause. Though the Duke's position as chancellor of Edinburgh University was a ceremonial one, his support against the principal Michael Swann was crucial in Brown's final victory. Inspite of help from high court judges Swann decided in September 1973 that he was in a battle he could not win. He left to become chairman of governors at the BBC. But perhaps even now we begin to see the inevitable ironies that would shape a later career in politics. Brown may have driven out Swann but it is questionable if a significant change was brought to Edinburgh University by all this turmoil. Brown is ambivalent today about his time as rector, pointing out that Edinburgh University still has not forgiven him, let alone thanked him, for his efforts. Rules were changed to make sure a student could not serve as rector again, although in return Brown won the right for students to at least be represented on the governing body.
Brown now began his career in politics. Whilst working as a part time history lecturer at Edinburgh University, he helped on the campaigns of local MP Robin Cook, and in 1975 edited The Red Paper For Scotland, in which Scotland's most prominent socialists got to sound off about a variety of issues. Brown wrote his own youthful manifesto in The Red Paper, talking of a "massive and irreversible shift of power to working people" who would have the "final say" in government. How this "final say" would be organised was not established. From this radical starting point he fought on with characteristic energy to become parliamentary candidate for Labour in Edinburgh South in 1979. It is likely his defeat, and the wider defeat of Labour in 1979's general election, was sobering. The trade unions of 1979 brought down James Callaghan's relatively moderate Labour government, and in its place they did not find socialist utopia. Instead they got the government of Margaret Thatcher. After this blow the Labour Party became dominated by extreme left wing views, and it was at this point that Gordon Brown began the process which would one day enable him to follow William Knox's advice about leaving behind the charade of opposition. He took a job as television producer with Scottish Television, which gave an eye for presentation and understanding an audience. In his politics Brown started to become more circumspect, declining to support the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, even though it was party policy. From a position on the Scottish Labour Party's executive committee, he also argued that party policies should be modified to win voter support. This was virtual "heresy" in the early 1980s (see Gordon Brown by Paul Routledge P96). The extreme Labour Party of the early 1980s, led by Michael Foot, suffered a massive defeat at the general election of 1983. Ironically this was the election that finally took Gordon Brown into Parliament, as MP for Dunfermline East.
Arriving in Westminster in June 1983 Brown immediately became a member of Neil Kinnock's successful leadership campaign, in a contest triggered by Michael Foot's decision to retire. Brown shared an office with another MP who came in with the 1983 intake, Tony Blair. The two men became friends, Brown coaching Blair in the business of media and presentation. Presentation was to become an increasingly important preoccupation, particularly after 1987 when Peter Mandelson, a former researcher at London Weekend Television, was hired as director of press and public relations. It was Mandelson who replaced the red flag with a red rose as the Labour Party symbol. And it was Mandelson who would eventually support a leader who he thought would give Labour the best image as an electable party. At first Gordon Brown seemed to be Mandelson's choice for the top position. Brown's advance in the shadow cabinet was rapid, becoming shadow chief secretary to the treasury in 1987. Following the 1992 general election, where John Major managed to snatch another victory for the Conservatives, John Smith was given the leadership when Kinnock retired. Brown moved to shadow chancellor, a position second only to the leader himself. But then in September 1993 an economic disaster for the Conservative government of John Major also damaged Gordon Brown. Brown had decided to support British entry to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, a scheme designed to control exchange rates of European currencies relative to each other. The pound was obliged to maintain its value within 6% of other member currencies. This stability it was hoped would help European economic growth. Unfortunately in June 1992 Denmark rejected the Maastricht Treaty, and with it the idea of a single currency. Then news emerged that the French were also to hold a referendum on the single currency. This caused a reaction in the markets, with investors now concerned that the goal of stable European exchange rates was not going to be realised. Vast quantities of money now started leaving the weaker currencies of the ERM, the lira and peseta initially, and started piling into the safer German Deutschmark. Germany also offered higher interest rates than other countries which gave a better return for investors. Germany did not help matters when on 17th July 1992 they put their interest rates up further. Currency speculators now started circling. With the pound likely to follow the lira and peseta downwards, and the government certain to buy sterling to try and maintain its ERM value, it was clear that there would be a customer ready to pay a good price for cheap sterling. The end came in the middle of September 1992. Against a background of heavy selling the value of sterling plummeted. The government was obliged to try and hold sterling's value within its 6% margin, and billions went into buying sterling to try and preserve its value. Inspite of this, on Black Wednesday 16th September 1992, sterling fell below the value allowed by the Exchange Rate Mechanism and had to withdraw. This was a major economic disaster and lost Britain a sum of £3.4 billion (figure quoted in Cameron, The Rise Of The New Conservative by Francis Elliot and James Hanning).
The Palace of Westminster, showing Millbank Tower in the background. In 1995 Labour built on its modern image by taking space at the bottom of Millbank as a campaign headquarters.
Brown had supported Britain remaining in the ERM until the day before Black Wednesday. So even though he came out and gave thundering speeches about Conservative incompetence, this was all part of the farce William Knox had talked about in the eighteenth century. Brown believed in the potential advantages of stable exchange rates, and, like chancellor Norman Lamont would have tried to save sterling's position in the ERM. But inspite of his angry speeches, and his efforts to disassociate himself from government policy, Brown was damaged by the ERM disaster. Tony Blair now moved forward, especially as Peter Mandelson thought that Blair would make a more photogenic front man. Blair was like a television presenter, while Brown was more of a producer and writer, as he had been at Scottish Television. Blair as shadow home secretary made a big impact with his phrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". Blair said it but Brown wrote it. The choice between Brown or Blair as the next leader became critical following the sudden death from a heart attack of John Smith on 12th May 1994. By the end of May Brown had decided to stand aside for Blair, with the fear that running against each other would damage the modernising agenda. But as always the "modernising" agenda hides the basic fact that in politics little tends to change. In 1979 the Conservatives pledged to reduce public spending to below 40% of gross domestic product. But inspite of all Margaret Thatcher's claims that great changes would be made to the role of government in British society, public spending stayed roughly where it was. By 1995 Brown was attacking the spending of Major's Conservative government as unrealistic, and claimed that he could not "build a new Jerusalem on a mountain of debt" (Labour Conference speech 1995, quoted Routledge P228). Unfortunately when Labour finally did win power at the 1997 general election, Brown in his turn found that the farce had to end, and the business of government had to be taken up in the usual way. Brown may have said that the Major governments spending was too high, but Labour did not change it much. Public spending as a percentage of total gross domestic product was 38.7% when Labour came to power in 1997. By 2003 - 04 it was 37.2% (source http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/spend_sr00_repannexa_tablea9.htm).
Gordon Brown served as chancellor until June 2007. Keeping his distance from the unpopular decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Brown eventually took over as prime minister on 27th June 2007 when Tony Blair retired. Before becoming prime minister Brown said he would not use the prime ministerial country retreat at Chequers. Once he became prime minister he realised Chequers is a beautiful place. Without even one of William Knox's awkward apologies he started to spend a lot of time there (see No PM However Dour Can Resist The Charms of a Stately Pile by Alice Thompson in The Times July 24th 2008). Brown's early period in office saw him winning lost popularity for Labour, and there was talk of an early election campaign to capitalise on this. Unfortunately there was a perception of dithering over the decision. When Brown finally decided against calling an early election his standing had already been damaged. Then came the great crisis of Brown's time as prime minister, the world wide banking system's near collapse in 2008. Brown claimed in 1995 that a new Jerusalem could not be built on a mountain of debt, but circumstances pushed him into using public money to save the banking system, which resulted in huge levels of public debt. In many ways Brown received international praise for the way he dealt with the crisis. However, as chancellor through the previous decade, he also came in for criticism for failures in regulation which helped contribute to the banking crisis in the first place. Brown's popularity was falling rapidly. Reports emerged from Downing Street of bullied employees. The director of an anti bullying helpline had to resign after revealing that her organisation had taken calls from disgruntled government employees. Finally time ran out, and Brown was obliged to call an election in May 2010. Televised debates did not play to the Labour leader's strengths. There was also an embarrassing episode whilst out on the campaign trail in Rochdale. A forgotten microphone picked up Brown commenting that a Labour voter he had spoken to was a "bigot". This caused much embarrassment, and was followed by humiliating apologies. On 11th May 2010, following an election which returned a hung Parliament with a Conservative majority, Gordon Brown resigned as prime minister. In his farewell speech to Labour Party staff Brown said that "I am Labour, and Labour I will always be". This suggests a stability that did not really exist. The politician who resigned in May 2010 was difficult to recognise in the MP who entered Parliament in 1983. In many ways being a politician, and being prime minister, is to accept that few principles are fixed. What is fixed is the sense that the farce must end and the business of government is taken up and carried on in the usual way. This business in many ways doesn't care if a prime minister is Conservative, Labour or Liberal.