Gordon Brown memoir: We won the battle to escape recession but we lost the war to build something better

Gordon Brown

This is an extract from the introduction to Gordon Brown’s memoir, My Life, Our Times, which is published on Tuesday 7 November.

Twenty years on from when I became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and ten from when I became prime minister, I feel the time has come now to look back and take stock: of what I was trying to do, and of what I got wrong as well as what I got right. I started out in politics as an idealist with a strong, perhaps naïve, conviction of what needed to change in Britain. Politics, I thought, was more than the art of the possible; it was about making the desirable possible. Of course, there is always a tension between idealism and pragmatism. Over five decades I have learned that leaders need a command of substance, mastery of detail, problem-solving skills and an ability to see the big picture. But that is not enough: above all else, leaders need to communicate a positive vision of the future that can inspire and motivate people and mobilise their enthusiasm for progress and change

In politics, you not only have to do what is right, but you have to convince the wider audience. In this book, I write of the greatest test that I faced as prime minister: the gravest financial crisis of our lifetime, and one which could have rapidly gone critical in the form of a sweeping global depression. That did not happen – and, through unprecedented cooperation worldwide in a plan for recovery, growth quickly returned, unemployment started to fall and peoples savings were secured. But I wish that in the midst of all that I was doing to forestall a depression, I had been able to do more to lift confidence and to convey hope. And I regret to this day being unable to convince the British people that we had to finish the work of recovery by rebuilding our still unreformed and risk-laden financial system

In politics, you can never assume that the old ways will do. There are turning points when one course of action has reached its end, and when a new course must be charted. It requires judgement. Sometimes what is reported as good judgement is, in fact, simply good fortune. But, at other times, the opposite is true: it was said of Abraham Lincoln that, with his party sometimes a fragile coalition, and in the rapidly fluctuating political and military complexities as the Civil War raged and moved towards its climax, he never took a step too early or too late’.

Like most politicians, I cannot claim to have always seen the writing on the wall, good or bad. In my thirteen years in government there were many turning points, some fundamental, others less important. In the chapters that follow I write about times when it was right to act  And I write about times when it was right to step back. I will also set out what I have learned about myself and the kind of challenges any future politician will face.

Politics is, in fact, surprisingly physical. A life in politics is one of thousands upon thousands of handshakes, one at a time, with eye contact often more important than words. I love campaigning. I love meeting people. I love not just the big rallies  but the face- to- face encounters. I feel drawn to people – hearing their stories, listening to their ideas, putting myself in their shoes and learning from their comments and criticisms. I miss the local advice surgeries I held for constituents in ten different locations in towns and villages across my constituency. And I was as grateful for the kindness shown to me as I was for the occasional extreme frankness of fiercely egalitarian Fifers. All this matters, because it is the ability to connect that influences whether or not people decide to believe in what you are trying to do and support you. Getting it wrong can be damaging, and getting it wrong on camera – or on tape – immensely damaging. President George H. W. Bush was caught on camera glancing at his watch in a 1992 town-hall debate with Bill Clinton, just as a citizen was asking how the economic downturn had affected him personally. It conveyed a vivid impression that he could hardly wait to get out of there.

But in recent years connecting’ seems to increasingly include the public display of emotion, with the latter – authentic or not – seen as evidence of a sincerity required for political success. In a more touchy-feely era, our leaders speak of public issues in intensely personal ways, and assume they can win votes by telling their electors that they feel their pain. For me, being conspicuously demonstrative is uncomfortable – to the point that it has taken me years, despite the urging of friends, to turn to writing this book. I can look back on a time about half a century ago when leaders were deemed self-absorbed and even out of touch if they were constantly self-referential in public. And when I was asked why I was reluctant to talk about myself while other political leaders freely broadcast what they claimed to be their deepest feelings, I was always tempted to reply: why dont you ask them why they are always speaking about themselves? What mattered, I thought, was how others might beneft from what I did for them as an active politician – not what I claimed to feel. If in my political career I was backward in coming forward, my failure was not so much a resistance to letting the public in – I never shrank from that – it was resisting the pressure to cultivate an image that made the personal constantly public. Reticence was the rule. That kind of self-restraint may now be a barrier in politics. Today there are few leaders – Angela Merkel, notably, is one – whose claim to office is grounded primarily in an undemonstrative command of detail – unlike, say, Donald J. Trump. But while the German chancellor would criticise those who put spin over substance, even she has, perhaps unintentionally, created a nationally appealing image that is about more than hard work and sound decision-making. Her nickname is “Mutti” – German for “mummy”.

I fully understand that in a media-conscious age every politician has to lighten up to get a message across and I accept that, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a sense of personal reserve can limit the appeal and rapport of a leader. Although some politicians thrust their children into the limelight – think of the unfortunate child filmed eating a beef burger to reassure the public at the height of the BSE drama – Sarah and I were determined to let our sons, John and Fraser, grow up so far as possible as normal children, not especially privileged. We agreed to publish only one photograph after each was born, and generally I am grateful to the newspapers for allowing them their privacy. Interestingly, after we left Downing Street some people wrote to me saying that they had not known I had any children until they saw the footage of our family leaving together – and the warmth they saw between us revealed something about me of which they had also been unaware.

I am not, I hope, remote, offhand or uncommunicative. But if I wasnt an ideal fit for an age when the personal side of politics had come to the fore, I hope people will come to understand from these pages that this was not an aloofness or detachment or, I hope, insensitivity or a lack of emotional intelligence on my part, but an inner sense that what mattered was not what I said about myself, but what our government could do for our country.

A new age of social media elevates public displays of private emotions even further. We can now see on our phones and laptops – and talk instantaneously with – countless people in all corners of the world whom we will never meet. And communication like this represents a huge advance for free speech and human rights: regimes may censor and even silence opponents, but not for ever – ultimately the truth will get out. The three years that I was prime minister were at the cusp of the transition from the TV age to the Internet age. Now no politician can succeed without mastering social media – and yet, in it, the prime minister becomes one among millions of voices competing to be heard.

The Internet often functions like a shouting match without an umpire. Trying to persuade people through social media seems to matter less than finding an echo chamber that reinforces ones own point of view. Too often, all we are hearing is the sound of voices like our own. The turnaround is so instantaneous that, for the luxury of sounding of, we often forgo the duty to sit and think. And because differentiation is the name of the political game – showing what divides you from your opponent, not what you have in common – achieving a consensus in a wilderness of silos is difficult, if not impossible. As we found, first during the Scottish referendum of 2014 and more recently in the European referendum of 2016, a rational, civil and objective dialogue can give way to a battle of taunts, slogans and ideologies. Worse, objective facts are lost in the escalation of division, culminating in the absurdities of post-truth politics.

 I was born about forty years before the World Wide Web, and arrived in Parliament twenty years before the advent of Twitter. During my time as an MP I never mastered the capacity to leave a good impression or sculpt my public image in 140 characters. It is impossible to imagine Clement Attlee – notoriously terse and unforthcoming, yet the power behind Labours transformation of Britain in the years 1945 to 1951  – remotely fitting in as a politician in our Internet age. Nor perhaps Margaret Thatcher, whose appeal was based on her determination and her ideology. Despite her strategists’ best efforts to present her as the housewife balancing the nations family budget, her stock- in- trade was her near-dogmatic certainty that she was right. I met Lady Thatcher on a number of occasions, and the very idea that she could contain her thoughts to 140 characters is preposterous. The Lady was not for tweeting. But I should have been. Todays social-media focus on the ‘me’ and the ‘now’ may be obscuring a vital truth and another lesson I discuss in the pages that follow: that a leader succeeds only if he or she creates a talented and effective team. No matter the spin, leaders cannot succeed as a one-man – or one-woman – band, and they will fail unless those around them are convinced that they are working in a worthwhile cause. One of the memorabilia in No. 10 is a piece of moon rock gifted by the Americans, and when I spoke to my staf I often highlighted John F. Kennedys visit to what is now called the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he asked everyone there what they did. He talked to an engineer, a research scientist, a manager and several astronauts. Then he came to a lady who happened to be the cleaner. He asked her what she did. ‘I’m helping put a man on the moon,’ she proudly replied. She had been captivated by a strong sense of what a group of people could achieve by working together. And where I succeeded, I did so – and did so only – thanks to a loyal, dedicated and hardworking team, and the team spirit and sense of common purpose that we built.

My purpose in politics was getting things done. I start in the pages that follow with a description of an ordinary day in the life of a prime minister in ofce, and a scene-setting account of the forces at work that necessitated, challenged and complicated the work that we did

This account of my time in public life tracks how we were infuenced by, and how we sought to influence, globalisation; how we tried to swim against the neoliberal tide; how we developed and advanced a progressive view of Britain and sought to make the Labour Party a credible and radical instrument of change. Time and again, in each generation, we see power accumulate, vested interests entrench and seize too much control – and the historic task of political leadership is to stand up and tackle selfsh concentrations of power

In our time, overhanging all else has been the most dramatic global economic transformation the world has ever seen – an economic revolution that has been 1,000 times faster and deeper than the Industrial Revolution. Globalisation triggered a decades-long transition to a predominantly knowledge and financial- services economy, in which the pace of change constantly accelerates. It is now well understood that globalisation – the opening up of global capital flows and the global sourcing of goods and services previously manufactured here – has created millions of winners who have better-paid jobs, higher standards of living and more material possessions than ever before. But it has also created millions of losers whose skills and wage expectations cannot compete with cheaper labour economies. We have seen occupations that employed millions – from secretaries, clerks and typists to miners, ironworkers and shipwrights – virtually disappear. Traditional jobs like boilermakers, draughtsmen and electricians – and some of the newest, such as radiologists, computer operators and financial analysts – are repeatedly being reconfgured by technology. Since the 1980s, this has destroyed one third of our manufacturing jobs, challenged us to adapt to modern technology, opened a wider gulf between rich and poor than society should tolerate, and sown seeds of insecurity even among professional workers in well-paid jobs. It is hardly surprising that in the old industrial communities, people complain, indeed cry out, that the country is not what it was, that it no longer belongs to them, that it is no longer theirs. Understandably, they want someone, somehow to protect them from what they see as akin to a runaway train.

Taming globalisation – and redirecting it to meet the interests of working people – has been and is the defining political challenge of our era. But for progressives the task has been doubly difficult: year after year, we have had to confront what is best described as neoliberalism. Even now, many of the public have never heard of the term; but, starting out from attempts to control the money supply in the 1980s, versions of it gained credence when Keynesian economics and the corporatism it spawned appeared exhausted and unable to cope with inflation. When neoliberalism was dishonestly cast as analogous to prudent family budgeting, celebrated as an economic expression of what it is to be free and packaged in a public form as ‘popular’ share-owning capitalism, it had a more compelling appeal than it deserved – at least for a time. Over four decades, versions of it – from the failed monetarist experiment to austerity – were often dressed up in communitarian clothes Throughout my years in Parliament, we were up against what it really meant – to liberalise, privatise, deregulate and tolerate high levels of unemployment as the price for keeping infation down. Not only did privatisation replace nationalisation – as in telecommunications and railways – but the radius of market infuence expanded into areas like education, healthcare and even defence, often sweeping all before it. In its unbridled form this state-shrinking, tax-cutting, freemarket fundamentalism meant, for many people, the pain of unemployment, poverty and being left behind…..

My own biggest regret was that in the greatest peacetime challenge – a catastrophic global recession that threatened to become a depression – I failed to persuade the British people that the progressive policies I pushed for, nationally and internationally, were the right and fairest way to respond.

In  the biggest test that I faced – the gravest financial crisis of our lifetimes – our country desperately needed a message of hope. While I did not predict the recession that exploded out of America and infected the world, I did immediately grasp the need to act with unprecedented speed and our government was the first to push for co-operation among all the leading economies: first to avert a Great Depression, and second, to deliver far-reaching reforms of the financial sector to prevent a future collapse. The former succeeded, but not the latter.

I fell short in communicating my ideas. I failed to rally the nation. We won the battle – to escape recession – but we lost the war – to build something better. Banking should have been transformed, our international institutions refashioned, inequality radically reversed – and if we are to be properly equipped to face the next crisis this is still the agenda we must pursue.

We have now lived through seven years of austerity and face isolation from Europe, and historians will assess these years economically – both for Britain and Europe – as a lost decade.

To order My Life, Our Times by Gordon Brown from Waterstones for £15 (RRP £25), visit the Waterstones website and enter code LABOURGB when prompted at the checkout. Offer is valid until December 15. Orders can be collected free of charge at your nearest store. 

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