The Books Interview: Christopher Harvie

Your book Broonland traces the political trajectory of Gordon Brown. You first met him in the mid-1970s, didn't you?
He worked part-time for the Open University and I worked in the history department. But I really got to know him in autumn 1978, when I moved to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Edinburgh University. Brown and I came together when we were running the Lothian Labour campaign for a Yes vote in the 1979 referendum on the Scotland Act. He emerged from that campaign with very great credit, whereas the rest of the Labour Party was nowhere. I suspect that out of that came a degree of disillusionment on his part with the party. The guys who worked hardest were the Communists - the NUM vice-president Mick McGahey, people like that. The Communists were dogmatic, but they were honest! These are the people that Lawrence Daly [the Scottish miners' leader at whose funeral last year Brown read the eulogy] came from. And don't forget that quite a few contributions to The Red Paper on Scotland, edited by Brown, came from the Communist Party. Brown had a degree of trust in these guys that he didn't have either in the machine politicians of west central Scotland or in the Trots.

Talking of Trots, what was Brown's relationship with the various Trotskyist entryist groups in the Labour Party in the early 1980s?
He always seemed to me to be rather detached from all that. I think Alistair Darling was more involved in the hard left in Edinburgh, strange though it may seem. Instead, Brown assembled around him a group of people who weren't exactly apolitical - people like Wilf Stevenson and Alastair Moffat - but who had experience of business and cultural politics. They were people he could relax with and who were also quite successful professionally, not utterly obsessed with politics.

The editor of The Red Paper was a socialist firebrand. When did Brown's political outlook begin to change?
In 1989-91, when you saw not just the wiping out of command-and-control socialism in eastern Europe, but also a kind of liberal triumphalism, in people such as Ralf Dahrendorf and Timothy Garton Ash.

You write that no one surrendered more "abjectly" than Brown to that triumphalism? Why do you think that was?
One thing I find intriguing is the impact that various authoritarian capitalist ideologies in America had on him. For instance, Ayn Rand. John Galt, in Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, is a strong, silent, presumably Scottish figure who resembles Brown. He's the man who doesn't say very much but gets things done. This authoritarian element in American free-enterprise capitalism is exemplified by the likes of Alan Greenspan. Brown was taken in by Greenspan to a great extent.

So the influence of America more generally on Brown is key.
Yes. He made frequent excursions to America. And Larry Summers is the link with Ed Balls. Balls had been out to Harvard, where Summers taught. And Summers, of course, was one of the people responsible for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and the headlong dive into investment banking that followed.

Brown seems to have been enchanted by the sheer dynamism of finance. He didn't have any relationship with American
social democrats, such as they are. He was persuaded by the financial dynamists. He's been a sucker for supermarket capitalism. When he talks about tremendous increases in productivity in America, what he means is Wal-Mart.

How would you sum up Brown's style as a politician?
The interesting thing about him is that he hasn't used people who could have brought a historical perspective to bear on policymaking. Instead, he chose a range of gofers. And he seems never to have had any interest in Europe. I don't think, for instance, that there was ever any meeting of minds between Brown and Roy Jenkins.

Some people still think he is someone you could trust. They'll say, "He's done it at last! He's prepared to modify the voting system. He's actually thinking in terms of financial regulation" and so on. But, my God, it's all after having crashed the car over a cliff.

“Broonland: the Last Days of Gordon Brown" is published by Verso (£8.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice