Gordon Brown: Historian becomes British Prime Minister





... Much has been made (notably by himself, in his recent acceptance speech) of Brown's being a son of the manse. It's true that he inherits his church's missionary zeal (something that distinguishes it from its languid Anglican counterpart). But more significant is the fact that he was associated with the history department at Edinburgh for 15 years - from matriculation in 1967, through the award of his honours degree, to the completion of his PhD in 1982.

Although, democratic intellectual that he is, Brown disdains the title (along with black tie and other ceremonial flummery), he is the first British prime minister to have earned a doctorate.

Young Gordon came to Edinburgh a precociously brilliant, but highly impressionable, adolescent. Its history and politics departments, in the 60s and early 70s, were the most impressive in the country. Unsurprisingly, the university left a deep and complex stamp on the youthful Brown.

The most charismatic figure was John P Mackintosh. A dandyish figure, flamboyant in flares and floral ties, Mackintosh hosted wild parties at his north Edinburgh home. Who knows, I may have jostled the future prime minister at one of them, to get at what was left of the white plonk.

Mackintosh died prematurely in 1978, aged just 57. The least ivory-towered of historians, Mackintosh believed in the academic-political nexus. He was Labour MP for Berwick and East Lothian from 1966 until his death.

Ideologically, I would guess there were three other personal influences on the impressionable young Mr Brown. Victor Kiernan, along with Eric Hobsbawm the most distinguished Marxist historian of the postwar period, published, in Brown's second year, his scathing satire on British imperialism, The Lords of Human Kind. Kiernan loathed the "English" arrogance of the colonizing classes. In Brown's enduring interest in Africa one discerns an odd mixture of Livingstonian zeal and Kiernanian rage.

The second influence on the young Brown was, I would hazard, Geoffrey Best - the most principled academic I have ever known. Fascinated by the interplay of ethics and history, Best was interested in the Victorian philanthropist, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury was author of the factory acts that got children and women out of the mines and factory slavery. High-minded, old-fashioned philanthropy of the Shaftesburian variety runs like a vein through Brown's political character.

A third influence was, I would guess, Paul Addison. Addison joined the history department in Brown's first year. A junior lecturer, he was my lodger for three years.

Addison was, at the time, engaged on research that would eventually be published as The Road to 1945, a classic analysis of the formation of the ideology behind the nationalisations of the postwar period - in particular, how that socialist ideology translated itself into practical reform.

When the judgments of posterity finally come in, Gordon Brown will - I suspect - be compared not to his showman predecessor but to Attlee: the quietest, but most momentously effective prime minister Britain had in the 20th century.

It's hard to think of a more effective apprenticeship for a future PM than a decade and a half in Edinburgh's history department at that glorious period....



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