Gerry Hassan: Goodbye to Gordon Brown and All That

Roundup: Media's Take

[Gerry Hassan is a writer, policy analyst and researcher.]

The last act of Gordon Brown has surely arrived. A gruelling election campaign fighting on two fronts. Three years of leading a disunited, unpopular government. Thirteen years in office and a culmination of mistakes made and enemies created.

Gordon Brown is as well as being the Prime Minister for the last three years and a senior Labour politician for more than two decades, a prolific writer who has ‘written’ and ‘produced’ more than a dozen books under his name.

In the last few weeks, Brown has produced one Fabian Society pamphlet, ‘Why the Right is Wrong’ (1) and another book of collected speeches, ‘The Change We Choose: Speeches 2007-2009’ (2), which complements the previous volume he published, ‘Speeches 1997-2006’ (3).

The Fabian Society pamphlet is the latest in the series of publications to come from Brown when Labour have been in trouble in elections. The first was ‘New Scotland, New Britain’ (4), published by the Smith Institute in the run-in to the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections; the second, ‘Stronger Together: The 21st century case for Scotland and Britain’ (5), published by the Fabian Society for the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, which Labour lost to the SNP.

One can expect such electioneering publications from the Smith Institute, which has at points acted as nothing more than a Brownite clearing house and cheerleader, getting into trouble with the Charity Commission for the use of No. 11 Downing Street when Brown was Chancellor and using it for political activities (6). One expects more from the Fabian Society, who used to be a serious nursery for exploring ideas, values and policies which had a broad centre-left canvas, but which now seems, in many of its publications, and certainly in its ‘Fabian Review’, to see itself as a propaganda tool for Labour politicians and activities.

The Son of A Preacher Man

The travelogue of Gordon Brown’s writings from the 1970s and early 1980s to the present day mirrors his wider political journey: from supposed radical to being a leading advocate of a domestic and global economic order which is the antithesis of progressive politics (7). This journey is not just a personal one, but has a wider relevance and resonance to what has happened to the Labour Party over the same period.

Brown’s earlier writings, ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’ (8), ‘Scotland: The Real Divide’ (9) and ‘Maxton’ (10), can be placed in an earlier Labour tradition of senior figures who were serious about ideas and values. People such as Richard Tawney, Tony Crosland and Richard Crossman come to mind, although Brown has clearly never been near this first division of talent. More apt comparisons from Labour’s past might be Ramsay MacDonald who produced several tomes on the meaning of ILP ethical socialism, and Tony Benn pre-Diaries, who produced a series of books expounding his ideas when he was challenging the party leadership, none of which are anything but the most superficial exploration of policy.

More recent books by Brown such as ‘Courage: Eight Portraits’ (11), ‘Britain’s Everyday Heroes’ (12) and ‘Wartime Courage’ (13), have gone from talking about ideas and policies to the importance of character, personality and heroes. This is a departure from a collectivist focus to an individualist one, and one which mirrors Brown’s and New Labour’s wider transformation.

This shift in Brown’s books has seen him move from this earlier tradition of Labour senior figures engaging in debate and discussion about ideas, to an American style of books similar to US Presidential candidates, the most obvious example and debt of influence of which would be JFK’s ‘Profiles in Courage’ (14). Kennedy’s book was judged by many a worthy exploration, but it contributed to a politics and industry which has seen an essential part of the US Presidential season become the publication of the prospective candidate which emphasises their character and life story, and which plays a crucial role in their positioning and profile in the party and country...

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