Gordon Brown had one of the shortest and unluckiest terms as Prime Minister in recent political history. Treatments of his career will need some perspective before we can fairly assess his Premiership removed from disastrous poll ratings, gaffs, power struggles and eventual decline and fall. However as journalism operates as History’s first draft, the books are already out. ‘Whatever It Takes’ by Steve Richards is part of a series of such overviews and is written in a readable, sometimes gripping style and is a balanced account of Brown’s political life. It raises the cartoon image of the recent PM in a way that understands a little more and condemns a little less. It reminds us that Brown couldn’t possibly live up to the expectations created by his supporters. Neither image was correct; as a Prime Minister, he was all to human in inter-personal skills and to the Left of Tony Blair in policy terms but also at the heart of New Labour.
Richards doesn’t see politics as a blood sport. Rather, he believes it a noble calling and that New Labour, despite their many flaws, wanted to change society for the better. So if you’re expecting an Andrew Rawnsley style kiss and tell, forget it. However, Richards has excellent sources on both sides of the Blair/Brown divide. ‘Whatever It Takes’ observes character and temperament but doesn’t make it the core of the book.
The material on the 2010 Election is particularly strong. Richards suggests that the defeat was by no means calamitous and that another leader, be it a Miliband or a Mystery Candidate X, would not have improved on the result. Yes, there were errors in the campaign, and yes Brown lived up to his image of being awkward under the media spotlight. But Richards puts this in context of a Prime Minister almost paralysed by a media battering and in constant fear of a hostile press. The post- election results show that Labour, with a bit of luck leading to more seats, could have prevented a Con-Lib coalition by forcing the Liberal Democrats to support the Tories from the backbenches. This would have been a remarkable achievement for a party thirteen years in Office.
Richards highlights Brown’s glory years as those in opposition to most of his period as Chancellor and just the first few months of his Premiership. Before Granita, it was Brown who consummately communicated with the media. He was trusted enough by the grass roots to lead the modernisation project with Blair and Mandelson. His speeches in Westminster as Shadow Chancellor were frequently brilliant in their scope and killer sound bites. He was easily one of the smartest guys in the room.
Richards sees Brown’s less than three years as Prime Minster as essentially one where both leader and party were running on empty. There was little to no communication strategy and the government gave the impression of a party being in office but not in power for most of this period. For the first time in over a decade, the Tories had an electable leader. Cameron’s taunt that his opposite number was an analogue politician in a digital age must have stung. But Richards gives his subject enormous credit for his work during the banking crisis. He may not have saved the World but he did help save the World’s financial system and nearly caught up on the Conservatives by doing so.
There is a shrewd observation of the TB/GB differences. Richards portrays Blair as a centre-right politician that ran a mile from income redistribution. Brown favoured redistribution but implemented this mostly by stealth. Both figures attracted huge personal loyalty but Blair attracted less personal hatred; their temperaments were very different. Richards argues that dominance of the party by the two giants stopped any alternative leadership candidate from emerging.
History will be a lot kinder to Gordon Brown the politician. ‘Whatever It Takes’ already has a more rounded account of the man than most recent writings. New Labour and their leaders are already history; eight months is a very long time in politics. 2011 will be another interesting year for political observers. There will be lots more time for Brownian Studies in future years.