When he resigned as prime minister in 2010, Gordon Brown appeared ultimate proof of Enoch Powell’s aphorism that “all political careers end in failure”. The man who craved the job for so long had endured a Biblically disastrous time in office, ending with his party winning just 29 per cent of the vote – its second lowest share since universal suffrage. In the course of less than three years in power, this one-time colossus endured the humiliations of the election-that-never was, the 10p tax debacle, the McBride affair, the expenses scandal and “bigotgate”. Worst of all, the ambitious, social democratic project that he had long hinted at proved non-existent. After ten years of faction fighting and running the economy, Brown was intellectually exhausted upon entering Downing Street. By the end of his premiership, he resembled a wounded beast, left helpless as the hunters of Westminster and Fleet Street surrounded him.
But as he finally announces his departure from parliament, his legacy looks more impressive than almost anyone expected in 2010. That this is so is largely due to his performance during the Scottish independence referendum, which culminated in him delivering one of the finest political speeches in recent history.
To describe Brown as the man who “saved the Union” would be an exaggeration, but he has a better claim to the title than anyone else. Liberated from office and no longer preoccupied with winning over the Sun and the Daily Mail, he made the case for social democracy and the welfare state with greater clarity and passion than he ever did while in No. 10. With the oratorical force that allowed him to so ruthlessly dispatch his political foes (Tory and Labour), he heralded the unique achievement of the UK: the creation and maintenance of a system in which risks and resources were shared between four nations for the common good of their people. And for a period during those surreal days in September, when the Union appeared in mortal danger, it felt as if he was back in power as David Cameron bowed to his timetable for further devolution.
But even excepting Scotland, Brown’s achievements have become more, rather than less clear, with the passage of time. As the eurozone teeters on the brink of a third recession, his decision to veto British membership of the single currency looks ever more wise. His success in shifting the centre on tax and spend has been demonstrated as the Conservatives have been forced to commit to spending billions more on a free NHS. It was the Tories’ repeated election defeats to Labour, which Brown masterminded as his party’s chief political strategist, that convinced Cameron and George Osborne that they could never pledge to cut health spending. Similarly, he made international development and the 0.7 per cent aid target part of the common sense of the age. Bank of England independence, the largest-ever reduction in pensioner poverty (it is only recently that the over-65s have come to be seen as a relatively privileged group) and the removal of 800,00 children from poverty all resound to his credit too.
Few economists now doubt that Brown’s decision to intervene decisively during the financial crisis by bailing out the banks and enacting fiscal stimulus was the right one. Again, to describe him as the man who “saved the world” would be an overstatement, but he has a better claim to the title than anyone else. His Keynesian activism prevented the recession from morphing into a depression and avoided the return of mass unemployment. Brown’s warning during the 2010 election that premature austerity would choke off the recovery was vindicated as the UK went on to endure three years of stagnation under George Osborne.
On the other side of the balance sheet lie his careless indulgence of the City of London, his failure to oppose the Iraq war, his reliance on redistribution by stealth and his invariable belief that “the man in Whitehall” knows best (all stances repudiated by his protégée Ed Miliband). But Brown’s legacy is one that perhaps no contemporary politician can match. His combination of formidable intellect, political cunning, Stakhanovite work ethic and moral passion will rarely, if ever, be witnessed in British politics again.