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The fatal ambition of Gordon Brown

In his autobiography, My Life, Our Times, the former prime minister inadvertently reveals the real reasons he failed to live up to his great potential.

Gordon Brown was a big beast in an era when there were big beasts in British politics rather than the minnows and charlatans we have today. He was interested in ideas and concepts, not the fripperies of politics. He was tested by terrible tragedies: the loss of an eye as a teenager and, when chancellor, of his baby daughter soon after she was born. And what he has done since leaving office in support of primary education around the world is enormously commendable.

I see no point in re-litigating the Blair-Brown wars when all progressives need to work together in the face of the serious threat that the country faces. Though it is mildly interesting to see how the various battles appeared from the other side, in the end there were only a handful of people involved and even they don’t care much nowadays.

The publication of Brown’s autobiography, My Life, Our Times (Bodley Head), is, however, an opportunity to stand back and assess his time in politics as a whole. The book is circumspect in what it tells us about his childhood or any of his inner thoughts, but unintentionally it reveals all the tragic flaws that prevented him from reaching his potential as a great political leader.

His diagnosis is that he was the wrong kind of politician for his age. He was not cut out for a “touchy-feely era” and was unable to make the most of Twitter and other social media platforms. He believes that, as prime minister, it was his failure to communicate his success to the public that led to defeat. From the evidence of his autobiography, it is clear that the problem was not Twitter but that while he had a high IQ, Gordon was almost entirely lacking in EQ – emotional intelligence – which is an essential component of political leadership. His account of his encounter with Gillian Duffy in the 2010 election illustrates perfectly his tin ear; for him, the fault lay with one of his aides, who had  failed to turn off the microphone, rather than with him, for calling Duffy a “sort of bigoted woman”.

He attributes many of his difficulties to the right-wing press, particularly the Murdoch titles Every media slight is recalled in detail, from the MPs’ expenses scandal to Barack Obama’s gift of a pack of DVDs (which, he tells us, didn’t even work on British DVD players). Having such thin skin is fatal for a prime minister. The one exception from his complaints about the media is Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail. The friendship between the two men was one of the most curious in politics.

Reading the book suggests a different diagnosis for his failure, at least to me. First and most important was Gordon’s inability to take responsibility. This is the primary test of leadership. The book is a series of mea non culpas, in which someone else was always to blame. The loss of the 2010 general election, for example, was his predecessor’s fault: “Well before Tony Blair left office, public support was moving away from us.” He doesn’t even accept that the election was lost: “Perhaps I am alone in thinking that the most remarkable aspect of the general election result in 2010 was that only ten million people voted for Tory austerity, whereas 15 million voted for parties with policies to keep the economy growing.” Labour was out of power because of Nick Clegg, not because of Brown.

The most striking example is his attempt to distance himself from decisions about Iraq. “I ask myself over and over whether I could have made more of a difference before the fateful decisions,” he writes. But he didn’t want another battle with Tony and he let himself down by not asking harder questions. He should have barged his way into the discussions. But his get-out-of-jail-free card is a secret US document that he claims he has discovered. It shows that “key decision-makers in America were already aware that the evidence on the existence of WMDs was weak, even negligible… It is astonishing that none of us in the British government ever saw this American report.”

According to his description, this was an internal document commissioned by Donald Rumsfeld to identify gaps in US intelligence on Iraq, which was released in 2011. I have asked the key foreign policy and intelligence officials in the Bush administration and none of them has heard of the document. All deny that any such information was hidden from American or British leaders. A senior US intelligence official involved in vetting the case for Iraqi WMDs said, “It would be highly improbable that the department of defence would have intelligence that Iraq does NOT have WMD. How would they prove a negative?” The problem with Iraq is that we got it wrong. There aren’t undiscovered documents that exonerate us.

Perhaps this unwillingness to take responsibility is explained by a comment he made to a friend in 2004: “I’ve tried not to be too exposed.” Gordon deliberately tried to avoid being associated with difficult decisions in government. But I think the explanation goes deeper. Robin Cook told me that he put it down to the influence of Gordon’s father, a minister in the Church of Scotland. Gordon writes that his father “did not need to say anything when he disapproved of my bad behaviour; his frown told me everything”. In his desire not to earn that disapproval, he took to avoiding responsibility. Unlike George Washington, he would have said: “Father, I cannot tell a lie. Tony Blair chopped down the cherry tree.”


Brown’s second flaw was his propensity to nurse a grudge indefinitely and let it eat away at him. While I was reading the book I had a series of disturbing nightmares. On the last night I sat bolt upright in bed with a vision that encapsulated the book: the howls of rage of a Minotaur trapped in a labyrinth of its own recriminations. This theme runs throughout the book – John Reid messed up Afghanistan, Alan Milburn was “disingenuous” and “vacuous” in his disagreement on health policy, Tony had “the biggest and best flat in No 10”.

The main problem appears to be the collapse of his relationship with Tony Blair. When they entered parliament in 1983, he told Tony that no great friendship among the senior ranks of politics had ever lasted. He wanted them to be different but he now thinks that Tony concluded that a breakdown was inevitable. Gordon’s gnawing disappointment and feeling of betrayal drips off every page of his book: he had helped Tony broaden his appeal in the party and Tony had always told him he was the senior partner, and the taking away of the leadership from him was “incredibly unfair”.

Gordon had his brother keep a diary so that he could record the promises that Tony made at the time. He doesn’t seem to have considered that whatever was said between them in 1994, the reason Tony was increasingly unwilling to hand over the leadership to him might have been his refusal to co-operate in government and his attempt to oppose every reform that Tony tried to introduce.

It is important for Gordon to demonstrate that the differences between them were over policy, and policies that are now unpopular such as tuition fees and the euro – but in reality, it was a clash of personalities. He identifies the breaking point as an argument over the euro in 2003 but it started long before because of his outrageous behaviour. Every page of my diaries from the period began: “You won’t believe what Gordon did today.”

Tony had been discussing moving him or even getting rid of him altogether years before. The breakdown of the relationship was a tragedy. They could have been the Lennon and McCartney of politics, as Gordon approvingly notes, but instead it was Yoko Ono and the break-up of the Beatles from the beginning. The surprising thing is how much the government was able to achieve despite the split at the heart of it.

The third flaw was indecisiveness. The best example of this is the on-again-off-again 2007 election. Gordon still denies that he ever thought of calling one: “I had never wanted an early election.” He claims that he did not read a note proposing the idea that his aide Spencer Livermore produced for him at the beginning of August 2007. He now writes that he did see the polling favouring the Tories, which he denied at the time. He thinks that his mistake was to allow his aides to speculate publicly about an election, though he gives the game away when referring with approval to the launch of the “Not flash, just Gordon” billboard campaign, a precursor of an election.

The real problem was that he could not make up his mind and dithered until the last minute about whether to go for an election and then denied to the public that he had ever thought of having one. In my view, he probably reached the right decision – Theresa May has found out the cost of calling an unnecessary election in a similar position – but his denial that he had ever considered the idea gave the public a glimpse into his soul from which he did not recover.


The final and perhaps most surprising flaw was his lack of any programme as prime minister. Gordon had more time than any previous incumbent to prepare for office, to put together a team and to decide what he wanted to achieve. He kept telling Tony that he had a series of great ideas but he couldn’t tell him what they were in case he stole them. In the end, the emperor had no clothes. When he came to office, he had no ideas and there was apparently little he wanted to do.

Gordon’s explanation is that Tony made him wait too long and the public was tired of him by the time he got to No 10. It is true that there are de facto term limits for British  prime minsters but that does not extend to chancellors becoming prime ministers. Perhaps the problem was that he never fought an election to become leader of the party or prime minister, just like May. Unless you have to run and prove yourself, you arrive in the top job undefined and unready.

Gordon did all he could on coming to office to distinguish himself from Tony in small things. He claims that he abolished the order in council, which allowed Alastair Campbell and me to issue instructions to civil servants, as a way of ending sofa government. But he seems to have missed that Robin Butler, who was the cabinet secretary until 1998, later made it clear that introducing the order in council in the first place was a mistake and made no difference to anything in the running of No 10. Gordon complains of the series of “events” that distracted him on first taking office, including floods, pestilence and developments in Northern Ireland. But a successful prime minister needs to have the ability to move the agenda forward, despite the crises.


It is clear that Gordon should not be blamed for the 2007-08 economic crash. It was, after all, a global crisis caused by the US sub-prime market. It is also clear that he did good work in gathering world leaders at the 2009 G20 meeting in London and chivvying them into agreement. In the end, however, I think history will give more credit to the Federal Reserve’s Ben Bernanke, with his deep knowledge of the Great Depression, and Timothy Geithner, then the secretary of the US treasury, for saving the world economy, because the rescue had to be American, just as the cause of the crash had been American.

It could be argued that Gordon’s greatest failure was the succession. He was so determined to win the crown that he adopted a “King Herod strategy”, killing off at birth any potential rivals who might challenge him, from Alan Milburn to Charles Clarke. In particular, it was his determination to stop David Miliband succeeding him that led to the victory of Ed, which led in turn to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

Gordon uses the book to try to reinvent himself as a left-wing socialist, praising Corbyn’s approach. He claims that his whole career was a battle against neoliberalism and globalisation and that he was only held back from more radical measures by Tony Blair. He now demands that the bankers be put on trial (which I suppose he could have done at the time). That is not quite how I remember the proponent of the private finance initiative and “prudence” between 1997 and 2007. It has certainly been a long journey from champion of neo-endogenous growth theory to the enemy of neoliberalism.

Gordon describes the book rather portentously as “the second draft of history”.  I think it will instead be the raw material of history, along with all the other memoirs and accounts of those times. My guess is that history will be kind to him about his time as chancellor and the many achievements of the government, from Bank of England independence to tax credits, but less kind about his time as prime minister and about how he got there.

Whatever his flaws, Gordon Brown was a towering political figure. Now the need is not for recriminations but for all progressives to put the past behind them, come together to fight Brexit and stop the collapse of the economy and, perhaps, even our political system. Let’s draw a line under the past once and for all.

Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007 and is the author of “The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit

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The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit