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Brown, Gordon

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown (born 1951) became British prime minister in the summer of 2007, after his longtime Labour Party colleague—and rival, some claim— Tony Blair (born 1953) relinquished power. Brown had served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, or finance and treasury minister, in Blair's government since 1997. Born in Scotland, the somewhat rakish, brooding politician had long been predicted to succeed Blair, and the perceived rivalry between the two men had even become the subject of a fictionalized television film in Britain in 2003, The Deal.

Brown was born on February 20, 1951, in Glasgow, Scotland, as one of three sons of the Reverend Dr. John Brown, a minister in the Church of Scotland. The family moved to the town of Kirkcaldy, in Fife, Scotland, when Brown was three years old, where his father became pastor of the local parish. Located on a narrow inlet called the Firth of Forth, Kirkcaldy experienced severe economic changes during Brown's youth, including the closing of one of its biggest employers, a linoleum factory. His charity-minded father was a beloved local pastor for his commitment to economic issues, and that sense of duty would be passed on to his son. Recalling the visitors who came to the St. Bryce rectory where the family lived, Brown later said that “as a minister's son you see every problem coming to your doorstep,” as he told Paul Vallely in the London Independent. “You become aware of a whole range of distress and social problems.”

“Red Gordon”

The Fife area where Brown grew up was a part of Scotland whose locals “pride themselves on being different from other Scots,” Vallely described. “One cherished characteristic is, in Scots, that of being ‘thrawn,’ which translates as stubborn, cross-grained [contrarian] and defiant. Fifers have long memories, and brag of making good friends but bad enemies,” with the journalist adding that among Brown's longtime colleagues in the center of government, “there are plenty in Westminster who will concur” with that assessment of Brown as a genuine Fifer.

Brown was a gifted student who was selected for a fasttrack university entrance program, and he began his studies at the University of Edinburgh at age 16. His major was history, but he was also a talented rugby player for the school, as he had been back in Kirkcaldy. During his first year of college, however, he suffered a detached retina, which was likely a precondition exacerbated by the notoriously brutal sport. After three operations, he lost sight in his left eye. Following each of those surgeries, Brown later recalled in an interview with the London Guardian's Suzie Mackenzie, “I'd have to lie, in darkness, for three maybe four weeks at a time.” Later during his university period, he noticed the same symptoms in right eye, and this time underwent an operation with more advanced instruments that allowed surgeons to view the retina more clearly, and the sight in that eye was saved.

Brown's leftist political sensibilities were honed at the University of Edinburgh, where he became known as “Red Gordon.” He earned his master's degree in history with top honors in 1972, and was elected rector of the school that same year. In this post, he chaired the school's governing body, although the rules were later changed to prevent students from holding the office. While working toward his doctorate in history, he challenged the school's administration on several fronts as rector, most notably over its investments in South Africa. At the time, South Africa's white government ruled by denying the black majority population their political rights, and the country was becoming an international pariah. The first mention of Brown's name in the venerable Times of London, Britain's newspaper of record, came on March 20, 1973, under the headline “University clash with student rector.” Seeking support for his South African divestment campaign, Brown won an important ally in the form of the Duke of Edinburgh, also known as Prince Philip (born 1921), consort to Queen Elizabeth II (born 1926) and the University of Edinburgh's official patron. At the time, the rather dashing Brown, who remained a bachelor until age 49, was dating Princess Margarita, a member of the exiled Romanian royal family.

Elected to Parliament

Brown became a lecturer at the Glasgow College of Technology in 1976, a year after stepping down from his rector's post at the University of Edinburgh, where he continued to work toward his doctoral degree. He earned a Ph.D. in 1982 with a dissertation titled The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland, 1918-29. He also became active in the Scottish Labour Party, which is part of the larger Labour Party of Britain, and stood for his first general election in May of 1979 as a candidate for the House of Commons from the Edinburgh South constituency. He lost to a Conservative (Tory) Party candidate in what was a major victory for the Tories that brought the first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (born 1925), to power.

In 1980 Brown switched careers to journalism and became current affairs editor for Scottish TV, while also rising in the Scottish Labour Party to vice chair and then chair by 1983. In that year's 1983 general election, he again ran for a seat in the House of Commons, this time from Kirkcaldy's Dunfermline East riding, or district, and won, despite the fact that the final 1983 tally proved one of the worst ones for Labour in British electoral history. Also elected that year was an Oxford University graduate and left-wing lawyer named Tony Blair. The two shared an office in Westminster, where the Houses of Parliament meet. During the years that Labour remained in opposition, Brown held several successively higher posts as the “shadow” or opposition counterpart to various officials in the Tory government, including opposition trade and industry secretary and shadow Treasury chancellor.

Brown and Blair were part of a new generation of Labour Party politicians who sought to reform the organization from within by moving it away from its strongly leftist, pro-union past. The party was led by Neil Kinnock until 1992, when a Scottish Labour Party veteran, John Smith (1938-1994) took over; Brown was said to have considered placing himself as a candidate for the leadership post that year, but decided against challenging the man who had been his mentor. Two years later, Smith died of a sudden heart attack, and two months later Blair stood for and won election to lead Labour at its 1994 party conference. Insiders venture that there had been a verbal agreement between Brown and Blair not to run against one another for the party leadership, and that if Labour did finally win a general election and Blair became prime minister, he would serve just one term before stepping down to let Brown take over.

Became Chancellor of the Exchequer

Blair and his coterie of Labour advisors did manage to retool the Labour platform enough to gain voters by the next general election, held in May of 1997. Under the banner “New Labour,” Blair and Brown's party won a landslide victory for the party, giving it 418 out of 646 seats in the House of Commons. It marked a return of Labour to power for the first time since the Thatcher era had begun nearly 20 years earlier. Blair named Brown to be his Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post equivalent to that of minister of finance and the treasury department in other European countries, responsible for all economic and financial matters. As such, Brown was a key figure in helping Labour win a second victory in 2001 after having won effusive praise for his handling of the economy, which included reducing some taxes, granting the Bank of England more independence in setting interest rates, and settling the rancorous question over whether Britain would join the European Union's single-currency club. In this last matter, Brown decided that the Treasury Department would set five economic tests before Britain could adopt the Euro. Six years later, in 2003, the criteria set by Brown's ministry had yet to be met.

Brown's stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer set a new record in the history of the office. He remained on the job for ten years and 56 days, making him the longest Labour chancellor ever to hold the job and the longest consecutively serving chancellor in more than 200 years. There remained the question of the next step for him, however, and calls for Blair to step down increased considerably after Britain became the only major power to side with the United States in its 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite major public opposition.

Rumors of a deep rift between Brown and Blair resurfaced once again, as they had periodically since 1997, with the publication in 2005 of Brown's Britain by Robert Peston. The biography claimed that the two were not on speaking terms any longer, that Blair had not honored a promise to step down in 2004, and that Brown had told the prime minister, “There is nothing that you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe,” according to Catherine Mayer in Time International. Blair's aides denied that Brown had uttered such words, but Brown's camp—some of whom are believed to have cooperated, at least off the record, with Peston—refused to confirm or deny that the statement had been made. There were clamors from within the Labour Party for Brown and Blair to resolve their issues, lest the rift damage the party irrevocably, but the party did win its third consecutive victory in general elections in May of 2005. Sixteen months later, Blair announced that he would step down within the year. In May of 2007, he said in a speech that he would resign both as party leader and prime minister in June.

New Head of Labour Government

At a Labour Party conference on June 24, Blair handed over power to Brown, and the change in government was formally instigated when Brown accepted the Queen's invitation to form a government, as is the custom in Britain. He had already ascended to head of the Labour Party in May of 2007, after an uncontested bid. His first week in office was a challenging one, including the foiling of a terrorist plot with attacks planned in both London and at the Glasgow airport. Then came heavy rains that brought severe flooding to the north of England, and the new prime minister earned points for handling both “with unexpected deftness and assurance, radiating a newfound prime ministerial dignity,” asserted New York Times writer Sarah Lyall.

On August 3, 2000, Brown married Sarah Jane Macauley, a former public relations executive. Their first child was a daughter, Jennifer Jane, born in December of 2001 two months prematurely; she died ten days later. The tragedy prompted an outpouring of sympathy for the family, and Brown spoke of the thousands of letters he and his wife received in support. In 2003 a son, John, was born, followed in 2006 by a second son, James. The younger boy was diagnosed four months later with cystic fibrosis.

Brown must call a general election by 2010. The man once dubbed the “Iron Chancellor” for his somewhat ruthless management style at the Treasury likely hopes to set another longevity record as prime minister, perhaps even surpassing Thatcher's modern-era record of eleven-and-ahalf years. The college-era “Red Gordon” had not disappeared completely, despite his years in government and the requisite ideological compromises such careers often entail. Noting the achievements made since the early 1970s, when he and his peers were beginning their adult lives, he told Catherine Mayer in a Time article that Britain now might rise to a position of ethical leadership in the world. “We can be the first generation in history where every child has a chance of education. And we have the chance over the next few years to eradicate some of the most deadly diseases of the world: tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, malaria …. That would be a great tribute to the concern and the moral sense of this generation.”

Periodicals

Guardian (London, England), September 25, 2004.

Independent (London, England), June 28, 2007.

New York Times, May 10, 2007; December 5, 2007.

Time, May 21, 2007.

Time International, January 24, 2005.

Times (London, England), March 20, 1973.

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Brown, Gordon

Gordon Brown (James Gordon Brown), 1951–, British politician. From 1975 to 1980 he taught at Edinburgh Univ. and Glasgow College of Technology; he then joined Scottish Television (1980–83) as a journalist. He ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1979 but won a seat in 1983. As a Labour party member (1983–97) under the Conservative government, he held major opposition posts on trade and economic affairs and, with Tony Blair, sought to modernize Labour and broaden its political appeal. A potential challenger for leadership of the party in 1994, he stepped aside in favor of Blair, and in 1997, after Labour's electoral victory, Brown became chancellor of the exchequer under Blair; his appointment to the post was widely believed to have been the result of a 1994 deal between Blair and Brown. One of Brown's early actions was to give the Bank of England the power to set short-term interest rates, a power previous Labour and Conservative governments had reserved for themselves. Brown also took a tough stance on government spending, earning a reputation as the "iron chancellor," and established economic criteria for Britain's adopting the euro that helped undermine the prime minister's push to do so. When Blair stepped down as Labour party leader and prime minister in June, 2007, Brown, who had become the longest serving chancellor in modern times, succeeded him in both offices. During the 2008 global financial crisis, Brown's government was the first to attempt to stabilize financial institutions by recapitalizing them with government money. The subsequent recession, however, and a parliamentary expenses scandal contributed to Labour's loss in the 2010 elections, and Brown resigned a prime minister and party leader. David Cameron, leading a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition, succeeded him as prime minister. In 2014 Brown's campaign for continued union and against Scottish independence was generally regarded as more influential than that of members of the British government. He retired from Parliament the following year. Brown has written several books, including a biography (1986) of the socialist parliamentarian James Maxton, Where There Is Greed: Margaret Thatcher and the Betrayal of Britain's Future (1989), and Fair is Efficient: A Socialist Agenda for Fairness (1994).

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Brown, (James) Gordon

Brown, (James) Gordon (b. 1951). Politician. Born in Kirkcaldy, son of a Church of Scotland minister, Brown attended Edinburgh University, where he read history. Damage to an eye in a sporting accident did not prevent a vigorous political career and he was rector of the university 1972–5. Elected to the Westminster Parliament in 1983 for Dunfermline East, he formed a close understanding with Tony Blair and was one of the architects of ‘New Labour’. His aim, when appointed chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997, was to eradicate Labour's reputation for shaky financial management, and he dwelt constantly upon the need for prudence. One of his earliest actions was to hand over responsibility for setting interest rates to the Bank of England. Reappointed chancellor in 2001 and 2005, he succeeded Blair as prime minister in 2007.

J. A. Cannon

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"Brown, (James) Gordon." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Brown, Gordon

Brown, Gordon (1951– ) British statesman, chancellor of the exchequer (1997– ), b. Scotland. Brown entered Parliament in 1983. Under the leadership of John Smith, Brown became shadow chancellor and he maintained the post under Tony Blair. Brown's promise to freeze income tax rates for the lifetime of a Parliament did much to secure Labour's victory in the 1997 general election. His first act as chancellor was to give the Bank of England independence in interest rate policy.

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