Prudence of Mr. Gordon Brown

Prudence of Mr. Gordon Brown

by William Keegan

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As a young activist Gordon Brown believed in social equality and the obligation of the Labour party to work towards this end. Yet in Government prudence has been his watchword. In this insightful biography William Keegan examines the long game being played by this complex strategist.

"splendid" Roger Bootle, Sunday Telegraph

"[An] extremely important


As a young activist Gordon Brown believed in social equality and the obligation of the Labour party to work towards this end. Yet in Government prudence has been his watchword. In this insightful biography William Keegan examines the long game being played by this complex strategist.

"splendid" Roger Bootle, Sunday Telegraph

"[An] extremely important book" The New Statesman

"the best account of [Gordon Brown's] record" The Independent on Sunday

"fascinating, perceptive... and well researched" Times Literary Supplement

"a witty and humane analysis which untangles many knots." London Review of Books

"A book... to save the Labour party. Michael Foot, The Observer.

"He deploys [his] knowledge well in telling the story of Mr. Brown's rise to power" The Economist

"we needed William Keegan's book." Edward Pearce, The Independent

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
" a judicious and balanced survey. It contains much well-sourced, inside information…" (The Observer, 14 September 2003)

"…a scurrilous new book…" (Mail on Sunday, 28 September 2003)

"…a unique insight into the Chancellor’s career…" (The Observer, 28 September 2003)

“…a splendid new book…” (Sunday Telegraph, 5 October 2003)

"…It will be quite a test of his [Brown] relationship with prudence. Theirs has been one of the great double acts of our time…" (The Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2003)

"…This extremely important book explains very thoroughly the achievements and limitations of the Labour’s economic policy…" (New Statesman, 27 October 2003)

"…provides an incisive new angle to the riddle that is Gordon Brown…" (The Herald, 18 October 2003)

"…It may be a book about economics, but there was an almighty scrum at Politicos in Westminister on Tuesday night for The Prudence of Mr Gordon Brown..." (Independent 23 October 2003)

"…this book will prove an indispensable starting point for serious historians of the 1997 Labour Government…" (Tribune, 17 October 2003)

".... William Keegan's intelligent, chewy offering..." (The Scotsman, 18 October 2003)

"…it’s a formidable account detailing Brown’s long term strategy to become Prime Minister…" ( Sunday Herald, 19 October 2003)

"…William Keegan’s elegant new book…" (Guardian 20 October 2003)

"…what interests Keegan is how, after 18 years in opposition the Labour Government came in to power…" (Guardian, 18 October 2003)

"…Labour leader Michael Foot and Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett showed their support at the launch of a new biography, the prudence of Mr. Gordon Brown…" (Evening Standard, 22 October 2003)

"…Politico’s bookshop…was the venue for the launch party on Tuesday for the Prudence of mr. Gordon Brown…" (Times, 25 October 2003)

"…He deploys [his] knowledge well in telling the story of Mr. Brown’s rise to power…" (Economist, November 2003)

"…An intellectual history, rich in information, the only way of approaching this serious purposed man…" (Independent, 4 November 2003)

"…as William Keegan notes in his major new study of Brown’s Chancellorship…"(Financial Mail on Sunday, 9 November 2003)

“...Anyone who wants to understand both the inhibitions and aspirations that motivate the Chancellor should read this study...” (New Statesman, 1 December 2003)

   “...The Prudence of Mr Gordon Brown (Wiley) is a good introduction to the same Mr Brown's more adventurous future...” (The Observer, 30 November 2003)

 “...William Keegan's study of the economic philosophy and psychological motivation of the PM's self-styled ‘best friend in politics’…” (, 3 December 2003)

"…It contains much well sourced inside information on the workings of the Treasury, but is not short on anecdote…" (Accounting Web, 6 December 2003)

"…Brown’s success…shows in [Keegan’s] his valuable interim biography…" (Financial Times Weekend Magazine, 13 December 2003)

"…is the best account of the Chancellor’s record…" (The Independent on Sunday, 14 December 2003)

“…Keegan’s book is balanced and well written...” (The Chartist, January 2004)

“…a useful resume of a career to date …” (Accounting Technician, February 2004)

“… possesses a clear grasp of economic issues, and the often complex policy issues deriving from them…and also illuminates the inner man…” (Professional Investor, February 2004)

“… offers a fascinating, perceptive  and well researched account of New Labour's economic platform ... an informative and original account of the economics of New Labour.” (Times Literary Supplement, 12 March 2004)

“… Keegan not only does a professional job in surveying Brown's chancellorship, he gives us a witty and humane analysis which untangles many knots.” (London Review of Books, April 2004)

“…very useful in showing the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the rightward evolution of Brown and his cohorts.” (Socialism Today, March 2004)

“In this excellent book [Keegan] tells the story of Gordon Brown, which is in its way an epic tale.” (The Oldie, 1st June 2004)

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The Prudence of Mr. Gordon Brown

By William Keegan

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-470-84697-6

Chapter One

A prudent background

Gordon Brown's father, in common with many members of his generation, had been horrified by the levels of unemployment and the degree of poverty that prevailed in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s. He welcomed the election of the Attlee Labour government in 1945. His second son, James Gordon Brown, was born on 20 February 1951, eight months before the second Attlee government went down to defeat at the October 1951 General Election.

The young Gordon's formative years coincided with what Harold Wilson used to describe as 'thirteen wasted years of Tory misrule'. His father, a Church of Scotland Minister, was not politically active but inculcated into his second son a strong sense of social justice and civic duty.

'He taught me to treat everyone equally, and that is something I have not forgotten,' the future Chancellor observed.

As a son of the manse, Gordon Brown was also brought up with a strong sense of the Protestant work ethic. Many Labour supporters were to be surprised in later years by the impression that, having poured scorn on the Conservatives in opposition, Brown seemed to accept much of the 'Thatcherite Settlement'. The explanation is that, while there was certainly such a thing as 'society' in his Scottish upbringing, there was also an emphasis on those famous Victorian values of self-reliance and self-improvement that werean integral element in what became known as 'Thatcherism'. On Brown's Presbyterian obsession with the work ethic, a biographer has commented, 'He honestly believes that work is good for the soul, which should mean that his own is in no danger.'

In the manse where he was brought up, prudence was indeed celebrated as one of the cardinal virtues. In years to come, those who came into contact professionally with Gordon Brown were to be impressed by the sense of industriousness that accompanied his prudent approach to life. The fact that he himself recalls a somewhat carefree childhood, in which the pursuit of the football ranked higher than the pursuit of his studies, is not inconsistent with his predisposition to hard work. In common with many highly gifted children and teenagers, he seems in those days to have displayed an air of 'effortless superiority' - not, in the pejorative sense, of looking down on lesser mortals, but in the way he could be obsessed by games and still produce first-class results in the examination hall.

While not as precocious as John Stuart Mill - it was children's books that he was memorising at the age of four, rather than Greek or Latin verse - the young Gordon, with his voracious appetite for 'sums', prompted one of his primary school teachers to recall, 'I couldn't keep Gordon in work. I was always having to give him more to do.' He proceeded from Kirkcaldy West (primary school) to Kirkcaldy High School. His academic brilliance coincided with a 'forcing house' experiment in the Scottish education system, which found him having to choose his future specialisation at the age of 12 (history) and going to university at 16, an age that, even at the time, he thought was too young. But the alternative was an extra year at school doing the same syllabus - after two years when he had proved everything he needed to with outstanding examination results.

One of the defining traits of the 'new' Labour government of which Brown was to become such a powerful member was its obsession with 'the media'. Gordon Brown's interest in politics and the media date from his childhood, and in due course his main job before he embarked on a full-time political career was in the media. His own media 'work experience' began when he was nine, as sports reporter for his elder brother John's handwritten Local News. At 11 he was 'sports editor' for John Brown's Gazette.

The following year politics and the media were merging in the 12 year-old Gordon's life. The enterprising Brown brothers were now calling their very local publication, Scotland's Only Newspaper in Aid of the Freedom from Hunger Campaign. The Chancellor-in-the-making wrote an article predicting that 'this year' (1963) might be the Conservatives' 'last in office for a long time'. Harold Macmillan, at 69, was too old for the 'responsible job' of Prime Minister. Then came the 12 year-old's early manifesto: 'We should and must have a strong and reliable government, to promote our interests in Europe and the world. In Britain, too, we must have a less casual government that must take drastic measures in solving our unemployment, economic, transport and local government problems.'

The boy's concern about unemployment was father to the man's obsession with 'Welfare to Work'. There was also an early hint of the concept of 'shared sovereignty' and recognition that Britain needed to be part of a wider group: 'Not long ago we were looked upon as a strong country: now our only hope of survival, in an age dominated by nuclear power, is to link with our stronger Western allies.'

Brown was the undoubted 'success' of the school forcing system, although he said himself that 'at 16 I had more problems than I had years' and he felt a strong sense of unfairness about the way many other 'guinea pigs' fell by the wayside. 'They pushed people too hard,' he said. 'The ignominy and rejection of failure (sic) could have been avoided.' At 16 he was arguing for 'respect for every individual's freedom and identity, and the age-long quality of caring'.

But at this stage no one was accusing him of being dour, or obsessed with work to the exclusion of play. A classmate recalled: 'The whole school was an intellectual hot house at that time. But in our class, it was Gordon who set the pace, and the rest of us would do our best to keep up ... socially, as well as academically. He was so sharp. The banter and wisecracking that would go on between the boys was great. Gordon was always the quickest to come out with a funny line and would soon have the rest of us doubled over in laughter.'

As Chancellor, Gordon Brown has persistently given the impression of being a man in a hurry, as well as a man with a mission. He can be impatient to the point of giving offence - a characteristic which, when manifested during meetings in Brussels, can feed suspicions of euroscepticism. But he often metes out the same treatment to his colleagues in the Cabinet, and I have personally seen him occupy himself with something completely different while ostensibly hosting one of his seminars at Number 11 Downing Street.

We shall see later that 'something happened' to him in 1992-94, when the shock of the election defeat of 1992 - the election the Tories should have lost - was followed by the death of John Smith in 1994 and the surge of support for Tony Blair in preference to Brown as Party leader. The darker, more complex Gordon Brown was not much in evidence during what were, at times, his riotous student days at Edinburgh University; neither did he appear to have a reputation for brusqueness in his early days in the Commons, from 1983. But in years to come many people who encountered him were to discover a complicated, brooding, even saturnine figure. His young brother Andrew has described him as having a 'shy' trait. To those with whom he feels relaxed he can be hugely entertaining company; and when he tries he can make very witty speeches to large audiences. But it undoubtedly suited him to cultivate a 'dour' image after 1992.

There were two experiences in his student days that may partly serve to explain characteristics that were magnified by events in the 1990s. The first and most painful experience was his discovery, within days of arriving at Edinburgh University to read history, that a rugby injury earlier that year (1967) was causing him to lose the sight of his left eye. Within the next few years he also suffered a detached retina in his right eye. This eye was saved thanks to the latest laser technology, learnt in America by an Asian eye surgeon, Dr Hector Chowla, head of the eye department at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. 'The clue to Gordon Brown,' said a Labour Party insider, 'is that he is naturally worried about losing his good eye. He is a politician in a hurry.' James Naughtie has noted: 'Everyone who knows him well recognises that his single-mindedness and relentless determination must in part be attributed to that trial in his late teens. For them, it explains elements in his character which sometimes seem impenetrable to outsiders.' It is interesting to note that his right eye was saved by a union of the health service and American technology. He was to preserve a close interest in the health service, and his Chancellorship was to be marked by a persistent search for new ideas from the USA.

His first (October 1967) term at Edinburgh was dominated by the vain attempts to save his left eye. While the Labour Chancellor of the day, James Callaghan, was fighting to stave off the devaluation of the pound that was eventually forced on him (and prompted his resignation), the 16 year-old Gordon Brown was, according to his memory of it, 'required to lie completely horizontal and virtually stationary for a matter of months' in the misplaced hope that 'if the eye and retina remained completely still they would bond back'.

It was a dispiriting, my terrifying, time for the young student. Was the psychological impact that some close observers associate with his sense of urgency in later life overcome initially by his youthful spirits? After the first failed operation he bounced back into circulation, beginning his university work in spring 1968. An academic observer says he was 'an important figure, even as an undergraduate. He was hugely popular, a natural politician: totally self-assured. He was good to everybody, and everyone wanted to know Gordon Brown. He was a bit like a Bill Clinton figure' (which was not what Bill Clinton himself was like at Oxford around the same time, from all accounts ...). On the other hand, a flatmate - somewhat closer to home than his politics lecturer - maintains that Brown led 'a quiet life' for the first two years, 'studying hard', while others recall that he could be 'a little dour'.

Certainly, the more flamboyant period of his time at the University - his stint as 'Student Rector' - occurred after he had obtained his first degree in 1972 with flying colours. Brown took the Court of the University by storm. The principal, Michael Swann, had greeted him on his arrival as an undergraduate by proclaiming that he was the youngest Edinburgh student of the postwar era. On experiencing trouble from the student activist, Swann could hardly wait to take up his impending appointment as Chairman of the Governors of the BBC, leaving Edinburgh within the first year of Brown's three-year term as Student Rector (1972-1975).

The themes of Brown's Rectorship were greater involvement of students in the running of the University and closer association of the University with the town. He defeated Swann's attempt to unseat the Rector as Chairman of Court meetings with an interesting resort to the Royal Prerogative: the Chancellor of the University was the Duke of Edinburgh, and Brown's girlfriend at the time was Princess Margarita of Romania, who happened to be the Duke's goddaughter.

The period spent as Student Rector went down in Brown's mind as a chronicle of wasted time. Reflection on it almost certainly contributed to the subsequent dash for a political career. 'I feel in retrospect I could have done more if I had stood for the local council instead of being Rector. It became a bit of a diversion.'

But it is not entirely clear that the time was wasted: 'It was quite a revelation to me to see how politics was less about ideals and more about manoeuvres.' A certain 'blooding' does seem to have taken place; no student of the former Student Rector's subsequent political career could safely accuse him of knowing nothing about political manoeuvres.

The idea of a Student Rector had been Brown's own, but the first Student Rector stepped down early. What the entire episode showed was Brown's remarkable flair for publicity. Reports of those early efforts of the Brown brothers at 'local' journalism had featured in the Scottish daily press, but one suspects that this was because the press's attention had been drawn to them by the authors.

Student Brown had, early on, embarrassed Principal Swann by revealing that the University had investments in South Africa's mining companies; Swann was a prominent member of the antiapartheid movement, and a spirited Brownian campaign forced the University to divest itself of the shares. When standing for the Rectorship against the industrialist Sir Fred Catherwood, Brown unearthed undeclared business interests - John Laing, the company for which Catherwood worked, was doing construction work on campus! These were early examples of the 'investigative' approach that the future Chancellor was to perfect on his way up the political ladder. Later, from the Opposition benches, he attracted attention by making capital out of a series of 'leaks' from the civil service.

Having been born shortly before Attlee lost the general election of 1951, Gordon Brown says that his earliest political memory is of being allowed to stay up late for the 1959 election, when the Conservatives under Macmillan retained office and Hugh Gaitskell, that early moderniser, was defeated. That was the 'Never Had It So Good' election. But after that Macmillan and the Conservatives lost their way. It was the Conservatives, under Macmillan, who became concerned about the British economy's relatively poor performance vis-á-vis our Continental neighbours in the early 1960s; they tentatively embarked on 'indicative planning' by setting up the National Economic Development Office, with a Council composed of employer, trade union and government representatives.

After Macmillan resigned because of ill-health in 1963, the Tories chose the 14th Earl of Home to succeed him. Home renounced his peerage and fought a by-election in Kinross and West Perthshire (a safe Conservative seat) as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. The 12 year-old Gordon Brown was on a family holiday in the area; he followed Home around and was 'amazed and appalled' that the candidate made 'the same speech everywhere he went. I soon saw through the tricks that the politician got up to. I thought it was awful.'

In those days the big economic issue on the doorstep of the Brown manse in Kirkcaldy, Fife, was the decline of the textile and mining industries and consequent social problems. The National Economic Development Office and Council ('Neddy' as they became known) were supposed to address such issues, and the Department of Economic Affairs, set up by the new Labour government under Harold Wilson in 1964, was intended to take a long-term view of economic decline and try to redress the balance.


Excerpted from The Prudence of Mr. Gordon Brown by William Keegan Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“the most readable account of the evolution of his policies” (The Times 15/6/04)

“..witty and humane analysis” (Peter Clarke, London Review of Books, 21st April 2005)


Meet the Author

William Keegan is an Associate Editor and senior columnist of The Observer newspaper. He is a well-known and highly respected journalist who has been close to the heart of politics and economic policy in Britain for many years. He was previously with the Bank of England's Economic Intelligence Department and before that was Economics Correspondent of the Financial Times. He has sat on a range of advisory committees, including the BBC Advisory Committee on Business and Industrial Affairs, the Employment Institute Council and the Department of Applied Economics Advisory Board, University of Cambridge. He is visiting Professor of Journalism at Sheffield University and a Governor of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
William Keegan is the author of many successful books, including 2066 and All That, The Spectre of Capitalism, Mrs Thatcher's Economic Experiment, Mr Lawson's Gamble and Britain Without Oil.

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