Gordon the Red. Robert Taylor on the reissue of an early book by the Chancellor


Gordon Brown <em>Mainstream Publishing, 334pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 1840186097

It may be hard to believe that our "iron" Chancellor of the Exchequer could have written a book such as this, even though it is true he composed it in his distant days as a fiery socialist and it was first published 16 years ago. At that time, Red Gordon was a young firebrand, the recently elected MP for Dunfermline East, as well as scourge of the Tories and keeper of the flickering socialist flame. Jimmy Maxton, the most ardent of the Clydeside rebels of the interwar Independent Labour Party, was the perfect subject for an idealistic but ambitious Scottish socialist such as himself.

Today, the Chancellor, with his undying love for fiscal prudence, business enterprise and open markets, as well as an intrusive Treasury control over much of the political economy, may seem to have more in common with Philip Snowden, rigid defender of economic orthodoxy in the first two minority Labour governments, and Maxton's particular bete noire. But, back in 1986, the gaunt, austere socialist school teacher from the slums of Glasgow was very much Red Gordon's hero, admired for his single-minded struggles against a timid, right-wing Labour leadership, which craved respectability and remained helpless in the face of the social evils of the Great Depression.

This biography began as Brown's doctorate at Edinburgh University, and it is not only well researched and scholarly but, unlike most theses, it is vividly written and a joy to read. Maxton reveals what a serious and diligent postgraduate student Brown was: while down at Oxford, a young, long-haired ex-actor called Blair was strumming his guitar in the Ugly Rumours pop group and securing an indifferent second-class law degree, Brown was very much the first-class honours workaholic, developing his socialist credentials with the Scottish Labour establishment.

Certainly, the reissue in paperback of this biography may help to remind some of the remaining older party comrades that, for all his modernity and uncritical infatuation with abrasive American capitalism, Brown can at least claim to have enjoyed an impeccable red past. At trade union conferences, he still resorts to socialist rhetoric (albeit unconvincingly) to rouse his old Labour audiences, before moving on to his pro-business message. No doubt, this is a calculated attempt to reassure the growing cynics and doubters that Gordon is still red at heart.

It is difficult to imagine Tony Blair writing a biography such as this. In truth, the Prime Minister despises the values and ethos of the old Labour movement, and all that it stands for, while Brown does not, at least not in public. And yet it is hard to see that Brown has much in common with the irrepressible Maxton. Tommy Sheridan, the socialist troublemaker in today's Scottish Assembly, is much closer in spirit and deed to the Clydesider's romantic tradition of left-wing politics.

Red Gordon writes here of Maxton that "cold, bureaucratic, centralised state socialism held no attraction for him. For Maxton the only test of socialist progress was in the improvement of the individual and thus the community. The social equality he supported was not for the sake of equality but for the sake of liberty. A truly Socialist society would free men and women from the fear of poverty, the uncertainties of unemployment and the miseries of deprivation."

There may be faint echoes of this sentiment in the Iron Chancellor's campaigns to abolish child poverty and force everybody he can find who is idle back into paid work. What he seems to lack, at least outwardly, is much of Maxton's humanity, tolerance and genuine compassion for the dispossessed.

It may be that Gordon Brown will turn out to be one of Labour's "lost" leaders, in the tradition of Nye Bevan and Denis Healey. But if anybody can still save the party from ideological self-destruction it is probably him. His opportunity to act decisively may arrive sooner than any of us expects. When, or if, that moment arrives, memories of the young Red Gordon among what remains of the party's socialist faithful will do him no harm. The reissue of Maxton will then have served his own higher purposes for the premiership after all.

Robert Taylor is writing a one-volume biography of Ernest Bevin

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