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Brown’s mission to change the UK

by William Keegan


GORDON Brown was the longest serving chancellor of the exchequer (1997-2007) since Nicholas Vansittart (1812-23). When his name comes up, people usually tend to say that he was a good chancellor, and kept the UK out of the euro area, but a disastrous prime minister. And even the ‘good chancellor’ tribute is often accompanied by the caveat, ‘But in the end, he overspent.’ The truth is more complicated. In this memoir, My Life, Our Times, Brown not only offers a greater contribution to history than some comparable works one could mention, but also sets the record straight on several controversial issues.

Although he is occasionally self-aggrandising and settles a few old scores, Brown is refreshingly frank about his own failings and disappointments. After all, this was a politician with a mission to change his country, not to say parts of the world. He made his ambition clear and became notorious in British political and media circles for his attempts to disrupt Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and assume the leadership himself.

The contrast between the Blair and Brown relationship and that of their successors, David Cameron and George Osborne, is interesting. In the days of empire the second most important cabinet post was that of foreign secretary. But after the 1956 Suez crisis, Britain’s last grand imperial stand, it was that of chancellor. Almost all holders of those high offi ces, and the academics who study them, are convinced that things go wrong when that relationship goes wrong. Cameron and Osborne were determined to learn from the well-publicised differences between Blair and Brown.

These began early. While the Labour party was in opposition, Brown was the senior partner, and taught Blair a great deal. When they entered government, each shifted his position on the question of sterling’s entry into the single currency. A dramatic moment, as recorded in this memoir, was when, on 2 April 2003, with the prime minister wanting to go down in history as the man who took the country into the euro area, and the Treasury harbouring doubts, Blair said threateningly to his chancellor, ‘Consider your position.’

It is to Brown’s credit that he conducted a series of economic tests, amounting to twenty volumes, on the wisdom, or otherwise, of entering the euro area. This wise and cautious approach contrasts with the lamentable failure of later governments to examine the consequences of leaving the European Union. Despite their differences, Blair and Brown did their utmost to achieve those New Labour goals of improving public services and alleviating poverty. But when Blair fi nally handed over the leadership in the summer of 2007, Brown found that being a multi-tasking prime minister was more demanding than expected.

Several times he quotes Harold Macmillan, a predecessor over half a century earlier, who went down in history for complaining that the problem with being prime minister was ‘the opposition of events, dear boy’. The best-known event of Brown’s 2007-10 premiership was the banking crisis, of which he gives a comprehensive account. His major role in what he once, overexcitedly, referred to as ‘saving the world’ was in promoting the necessary recapitalisation of banks – not just in the UK – and in being the brains behind the the trillion-dollar stimulus announced at the London G20 summit, chaired by him, on 1-2 April 2009. Sadly, although this stopped the rot and initiated a recovery, the following year the G20 withdrew the stimulus prematurely. Brown has strong words for the behaviour of the then governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, in this regard.

He criticises King for being slow to accept the need for a rescue operation, and premature in urging fi scal retrenchment when the recovery was still at a delicate stage. Brown, who is proud of granting the Bank of England operational independence in monetary policy, alleges that King breached an understanding that he, Brown, would not make public comments on monetary policy, and King on fi scal policy.

However, the greatest revelation in this book is that Brown’s premiership was dominated by the war in Afghanistan. Neither the public nor commentators realised that during his threeyear premiership Brown was writing an average of two letters a week to the bereaved relations of soldiers killed in a war that might have had some impact on al-Qaeda, but which constituted a losing battle against the Taliban.

brown cover 2

William Keegan is Senior Economics Commentator for The Observer.