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30 April 2017

From the 1997 election archive: The Ultimate Sacrifice

Gordon Brown's 1994 decision not to stand against Tony Blair was a defining moment in the party's path to power. This New Statesman interview, published in August that year, was the first he gave on the subject. In it, the future Chancellor and Prime Minister explains why he stood aside for his modernising friend.

By Kirsty Milne

John Smith was mourned not just for himself, but for what he symbolised. He was the father figure in Labour’s unruly family. When he died, it looked as if the younger generation might start tearing each other apart. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair had been friends since they first came into parliament. But was fratricide in prospect? Were David and Jonathan about to turn into Cain and Abel?

The press seized on every possible polarity. It was England versus Scotland (forget Blair’s Edinburgh origins): the sunny south and the brooding north; the happy family man and the man of brooding singularity. Brown was the failed hero, “sulking in his tent”. When the shadow chancellor finally announced he would not stand, it was “Brown falls on his sword”. Since then, people have been queuing up to tell Brown what a sacrifice he made and how much the party owes him. All this while he was grieving for Smith, his mentor and fellow-Scot. Friends describe the whole experience as “traumatic”.

But with the new leader installed, Brown seems far from depressed, and keener to talk about the future than the past. “I think the party’s done pretty well out of this leadership election. The most important thing was how we could best prepare for winning the next election and for government. And I think people would have found it difficult to understand if one of us, Tony or I, had stood against the other, after working together for so long.

“I had a lot of people wanting me to stand. I think I had a lot of support, and I think I could have run a very successful campaign. But I had to work out what was best for the party – though I know people believe that politicians are only motivated by what’s good for them. I think it was the best judgement, and I think it’s been justified by events.”

Yet the choice of Blair over Brown would not have been so obvious a few years ago. Brown was Labour’s star performer, the dynamic young Scot who harried Nigel Lawson when Smith’s first heart attack took him out of the Commons. He had drive, humour, and moral indignation. Most Labour supporters probably took Brown on board before they knew that Blair existed.

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No one seems able to pinpoint the exact moment when Brown’s star began to wane, but the rot set in after he took on the economic brief, two summers ago. He had less scope for campaigning speeches: as shadow chancellor, he became the man who liked to say “no”. He refused to call for sterling to be devalued within the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and came under fire for failing to exploit Black Wednesday more to Labour’s advantage. In last year’s poll for the constituency section of the National Executive Committee, Brown slipped from third to seventh place.

Brown won’t say whether he thinks his standing has been damaged by the economic portfolio, but speaks more generally of phases in politics. “I’ve come to realise that the first two years of opposition after an election are very different from the second two years. We’ve reached the point where we’re beginning to focus on winning power. But the period from1992-94 was bound to be more difficult than perhaps I’d imagined. People now realise that some of the things I was trying to say two years ago were correct, whereas at the time they did provoke a bit of argument and controversy within the party.

As Brown sees it, his job was to combat Labour’s “three negatives”. “People wrongly thought of us as the party of high tax, instead of fair tax. The party that would spend without thinking about efficiency or effectiveness, instead of the public service party that will use people’s resources to best effect. And they saw us as the party of the soft option, ready to devalue at will, giving into this pressure group or that – without helping the people we want to do best for.”

Brown is confident that the shadow Treasury team “has now broken through to a unique socialist analysis of what’s gone wrong with the British economy”. His “new economics” stresses the need for a “skills revolution” to raise living standards and make Britain more competitive. But some in his own party think his over-cautious. The left instinctively mistrusts his talk of tax-cuts “when it is prudent” and spending cuts “where there is waste”. There have also been grumblings that Brown’s economic strategy is “intellectually lightweight”. “He has done a very good job at pinning the ‘high-tax, low-competence’ label on the Conservatives since the last election,” says one frontbencher. “But improvements in training and education don’t add up to a sufficient analysis of the structural weaknesses in the British economy.”

Challenges to Brown on tax policy and public spending have already resulted in raised voices at shadow cabinet meetings. More battles loom. The party conference will hear calls of concrete spending pledges, while the big unions want to put a figure on the minimum wage of at least £4 an hour. Brown could find himself becoming a lightning conductor for those who are reluctant to attack Blair directly. (Some felt he was already performing that function for Smith.)

The striking thing about Brown is that he attracts loyalty and enmity in almost equal measure. In the days between Smith’s death and the start of the leadership race, people who had no view on Blair could often express fierce opinions, pro or anti-, about Brown. Nor does his support divide entirely along ideological lines. There are “modernisers” who think it’s time he was moved, and “traditionalists” who think he’s doing a decent job.

It cannot have helped that Brown’s humanity evaporates on screen. In person, he is much warmer and funnier than his relentless media image would suggest. But the sound bite distorts his personality, and it’s only in longer speeches that his talent for satire makes itself felt. In last month’s Commons debate on the economy, Brown decoded John major’s end-of-term message to back benchers (“We need to concentrate better”) as “a reference to fewer consultancies; no more inscribed gold watches; more time in research (less time with one’s researchers); tabling more parliamentary questions – but only for constituents, and free at the point of delivery”.

Brown describes the Tories as “confused”. Major, he says, has no sense of purpose, and ministers speak “with discordant voices. They can have no clear policy for the next two years on the three central issues facing our country: Europe, unemployment, and the economy.” In the run-up to the next election, he expects government troops “to attack Labour for being extreme”.

If Labour is to fight back, the shadow cabinet must present a united front. So what of reported tensions between brown and John Prescott – and between Brown and Robin Cook, who is said to cover the shadow chancellor’s job? In the deputy leadership race, Brown backed Margaret Beckett. But the suggestion that he and Prescott don’t get on brings an indignant response. “That’s just no true. I find that quite astonishing. I’ve worked with John Prescott for many years.” As for the shadow trade and industry spokesperson: “I was sub-agent for Robin when he was a parliamentary candidate in Edinburgh in 1974. He and I go back a long way. We edited a book together [Scotland, The Real Divide, 1983].”

There have been rumours that in return for his self-denying ordinance, Brown obtained from Blair a cast-iron guarantee that he could continue as shadow chancellor. “The point was never at issue,” says Brown. “There was never any discussion of jobs in that way.” But some senior Labour figures – including Blair supporters – want Brown moved. They regard this as a litmus test of whether Blair is ready to reach our beyond the moderniser camp to the wider party. Brown’s allies retort that his alliance with Blair is rock-solid and his position impregnable.

Their elder brother-younger brother relationship will surely change, now that the balance of power has shifted so dramatically. Yet Brown’s fans claim he is a more innovative thinker than his friend. According to one admirer: “Gordon’s the brains and Tony’s the presentation.” Whether or not that’s true, it is certainly the case that “community” is as much Brown’s theme as Blair’s. On the day that Major was speaking of our “private corners of life”, Brown was thumping the table and arguing: “People do have a sense of society. They do feel part of a world beyond their front door, beyond their garden gate.

“What’s been difficult for the left is that the idea of interdependence has been associated with a very one-dimensional view of a centralised state. Take the way the NHS was set up – organised by professionals without much community involvement. That’s why we have to retrieve the broader notion of community from the narrow view that it means simply action by the state.”

But what if reviving “community” implies a return to values that not everyone shares? Brown quotes approvingly from Blair’s acceptance speech: “We know what is right and we know what is wrong.” But he defends Blair from the charge of being judgemental about single mothers. “He was unfairly reported. Of course, when it comes to public policy, people have rights but they also have responsibilities. But it’s not my job to say what people should or shouldn’t do. You won’t find me moralising about single mothers. And to be fair, I don’t think Tony was doing that: he was expressing a personal view.”

Brown seems convinced that, as he put it recently, “the left in Britain now has the ideological initiative, the intellectual self-confidence, the policy agenda to lead Britain into the new millennium.” Could this forward march embrace platoons from outside the Labour Party – from the Liberal Democrats, for example? “I’m interested in the politics of change through the radicalising power of ideas,” says Brown, “not in deals stitched up behind closed doors.”

He is cool, too, about PR. “I’ve never been excited by the idea that by changing the electoral system you somehow change the whole nature of political debate.” Even so, he volunteers support for the promised referendum on voting systems, and notes that the party has backed PR for a Scottish parliament.

Brown clearly hates talking about himself, and lacks the politician’s ability to play for sympathy. He could have made his decision not to stand against Blair a Sidney Carton-style sacrifice, but he didn’t. Smith’s death must have hit him very hard, yet the most he will say is: “It’s still difficult to go into a meeting and find that he’s not there.” This is someone who really believes Tony Benn’s line that politics is about policies, not personalities. Which might explain why he failed to establish himself as Smith’s heir-apparent.

Labour veterans have been telling Brown not to give up hope. Jim Callaghan, they point out, never dreamed he would make it to Downing Street once Harold Wilson had won the leadership in 1963. But Brown seems unlikely to sit around moping over thwarted ambition. Scots Presbyterians love work as much as they hate self-disclosure. Brown will put his hand to the plough – and trust that Blair remembers his debt to his friend.

This article is part of the New Statesman’s 1997 election archive, New Dawn. Click here for the full collection.

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