Gordon Brown’s Tardis in reverse

A new book about the Prime Minster judges these to be his last days, but they now look as though they’ll go on for a while yet

One of the better quotations in Christopher Harvie’s new book Broonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown comes from one of his television producers, BBC Scotland’s John Milne in 1987. They were filming for a programme about Scotland’s political future Grasping the Thistle, and found themselves in the House of Commons, which prompted Milne to remark: “This place is like Dr Who’s Tardis in reverse. Once you get inside, it’s smaller.” The same feeling emerges about Brown once you turn the final page of Broonland. There is anticipation as you pick the book up. Something of the authentic Brown will surely emerge, revealing the visions, ambitions, frustrations and, frankly, contradictions of a brooding, combative, conflicted, but nonetheless deeply interesting personality.

Ultimately, however, Brown comes across in Harvie’s book as one-dimensional, a man who cannot orientate his identity between the conflicting poles of Scottishness and Britishness. At a number of points Harvie, historian turned SNP member of the Scottish Parliament, says that this may be down to Brown’s choice of hero on whom to base his doctorate. This was James Maxton, one of the Red Clydesiders who led the ILP’s break from the Labour Party in 1932. Harvie speculates that, “Had Brown written about other Scottish socialists – Tom Johnston, John Wheatley, the Fabian R.B Haldane – he would have grasped the making and deploying of institutions; and in Wheatley, the Irish nationalist’s case, the weakness of Britishness.” As it was, however, “Maxton, the Kinnock of the thirties, was charming, kindly, principled, but lazy and disorganised: he killed the Independent Labour Party.”

We’ve been treated to some other demolition jobs on Brown in recent weeks, in particular Andrew Rawnsley’s revelations in his blockbuster The End of the Party: the bullying Brown, the man who hurls things about the office and stabs a pen into the leather seat of his chauffer driven car. Pages of this stuff filled the columns of the Observer for a few weeks but it didn’t take us much further. Couldn’t Harvie, who has known Brown on and off since the mid-1970s tell us more?

Gordon Brown, we learn, is known not exactly affectionately in Scottish political circles as Broon after the cartoon-strip family of the same name in the Sunday Post, Scotland’s folksy weekly. ‘The Broons’, founded in 1935 by the immortal Dudley D. Watkins, creator of Lord Snooty and Desperate Dan, were a classic Scottish artisan family from around 1910, consisting of Paw, Maw and eight children: Hen, Joe, Maggie, Daphne, Horace, the twins and the bairn. Brown is, of course, likened to Horace who wears glasses and is an intellectual.

In that guise, in the late 1970s he and Chris Harvie, then in the Labour Party, co-authored a pamphlet The Scottish Assembly and Why You Must Vote for It. Harvie says, “The Brown of 1978-83 was an idealist, generous and anarchic, continually pouring out new ideas.” So what changed in 1983, the year Brown entered Parliament? Was it simply contamination by the diminishing Tardis of the House of Commons?

We are not really told, and nowhere do we get under the Brown’s skin. Instead we are treated to an account of Brown’s overlordship as Prime Minister of a British casino economy out of control and on the verge of collapse; of British manufacturing replaced by “retail, entertainment and recreation”; and of a Britain whose identity it is Brown’s mission to sustain, but one that he (personally) has taken from boom to bust, to busted.

This is a pity because we need to know more about the real Brown. For contrary to the sub-title of Harvie’s book, these may not be the Prime Minister’s last days. Since the book was signed off in January 2010, this Teflon character appears to have achieved something of a metamorphosis. He has survived financial meltdown, economic slump, successive Labour rebellions, the Iraq inquiry, lachrymose television interviews, character assassination, and appalling polls. Yet from the perspective of mid-April, he appears to be heading for some kind of phoenix-like recovery following 6 May, even if it is as part of a hung Parliament. The last days of Brown look as though they’re going on for a while yet.

Christopher Harvie’s Broonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown is published by Verso at £8.99. This review appears in the current issue of Planet magazine here.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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