In this summer of discontent, it is easy to forget that much of today’s turmoil in British politics stems from the 2008 financial crash.
The recession that shook the world helped pave the way for reaction against the neoliberal, globalist agenda that had guided politics for decades. In the post-crisis climate, populism, protectionism and bipartisanship have thrived.
This is what makes Gordon Brown’s new autobiography, My Life, Our Times, such a timely read.
After becoming involved in the Labour Party whilst at Edinburgh University, Brown entered Westminster in 1983, and soon found himself working alongside Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair, helping to run the election campaigns of 1987, 1992 and 1997.
Having enjoyed his work as Shadow Chancellor and Chancellor, the former Prime Minister wanted his premiership to be defined by his progressive socioeconomic reforms, such as increasing NHS spending from £57.3bn in 1997 to £118bn by 2010, tax credits, and the ‘New Deal for employment’, which helped more than 1.8m people into jobs.
But Harold Macmillan’s warning of ‘events’ came back to haunt No.10, and Brown’s premiership was soon coloured by the financial crash of 2008. Brown admits that his Cabinet’s progressive agenda, which included the integration of social care with the NHS, and proposals for a new set of ‘mini-towns’, had to be halted. The government’s energies had to be spent on stopping redundancies, bankruptcies and home repossessions.
Even the most intrepid administration would have struggled to push through modernising reforms during a major economic crisis, but Brown believes that this in itself was not why Labour lost in 2010. Rather, he points to the fact his government failed to communicate and popularise its policy of deficit spending. As political coverage led on debt, deficits and the Tory agenda of ‘balancing the books’, Brown maintains that he did not do enough to go out and show why it was not imprudent to run a deficit in a recession. It was not emphasised enough that government spending was essential to haul the economy back to life.
One of the threads that runs through the book is that of the conflict between credibility and radicalism. Beginning with Neil Kinnock’s attempts to make the party electable again (efforts which included the expulsion of Militant, the Trostky entryist group), Brown traces the ideological divisions within Labour. From My Life, it is clear the conflict between the far-left and centrist-left is a perennial battle within the Party that still continues today. After all, the Party fought the 2017 general election with a leader, Corbyn, and an organisational faction, Momentum, both of whom preferred doctrinal purity to piecemeal progress.
Brown worked closely with the Labour leader John Smith, until his sudden death in 1994.
Reflecting on the current state of the Labour Party, Brown suggests that in its post-2010 recovery, it is spending too much time searching for a renewal of righteous ideology and not enough time on policy work. He reminds the reader that ‘It is right to ask what we are for, but soon we have to answer people’s questions about what programme we propose and then persuade them of its benefits if we are elected again’. Indeed, electability comes not so much from pure principles, but from devising sound policies that can stand up to scrutiny from a public that remains sceptical of Labour’s economic credibility, and communicating them cogently. Knuckling down and scrutinising your own policy ideas is not glamourous work, but, as Brown shows, the administration is just as important as the philosophy.
When reading his autobiography, it is hard to shake the feeling that Brown is an underrated PM. Overshadowed by Blair, Iraq and Afghanistan, hit by a global financial crisis, and on the receiving end of a barrage of attacks (and even fake news) from the tabloid papers, Brown had many storms to steer through. But these events should not stop the public from overlooking the great strides made by Brown’s government in rejuvenating the NHS, reducing unemployment among the young, and reforming social security.
Anyone looking for a juicy account of the conflict between Brown and Blair will not find it here. Understandably, Brown focuses very much on his public, political career. His writing comes across as somewhat self-effacing, with only a brief discussion of his childhood and private life. But there are touching moments. Most potently, Brown describes the very near loss of his eyesight in both eyes following a rugby injury, and provides a poignant account of the death his daughter, Jennifer, who died days after her premature birth.
My Life is not a breeze. At 461 pages, it’s a hefty read, but it provides a detailed yet succinct overview of Brown’s political life, with the biggest chapters dedicated to Afghanistan and the government's response to the financial crash. It is a must read for those wanting to learn more about the path the modern Labour Party has taken, and why economic credibility has to be at the top of Labour’s agenda.