Brown, Gordon

views updated May 29 2018

Brown, Gordon


Prime Minister of Britain

B orn James Gordon Brown, February 20, 1951, in Glasgow, Scotland; son of John Ebenezer (a minister) and Elizabeth Brown; married Sarah Jane Macauley, August 3, 2000; children: Jennifer Jane, John, James Fraser. Education: Edinburgh University, M.A., 1972; Ph.D., 1982.

Addresses: Office—The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown MP, 10 Downing St., London SW1A 2AA, England.


E dinburgh University, rector, 1972-75, lecturer after 1976; lecturer, Glasgow College of Technology, 1976-80; current affairs editor, Scottish Television, 1980-83; first elected to the British House of Commons 1983; British Labour Party, chair of Scottish Council, 1983-84, opposition chief secretary at the Treasury, 1987-89, opposition trade and industry secretary, 1989-92, shadow Treasury chancellor, 1992-97, chancellor of the exchequer, 1997-2007, elected party chair, May 2007, became prime minister, June 2007.


I n June of 2007, Gordon Brown became Britain’s newest prime minister, or head of government, after winning the leadership post of his country’s Labour Party.AScot known for his keen intelligence and famously abrupt demeanor, he was dubbed the “Iron Chancellor” when he served in the cabinet, but as prime minister Brown has won high marks for his leadership style, which many political pun-dits note is the antithesis of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s. “Those qualities once deemed weaknesses—his lack of glitz and sparkle—have come to seem like strengths,” wrote Jonathan Freedland of Brown in the New York Review of Books.

Brown was born on February 20, 1951, in Glasgow, Scotland, and was the second of three sons of John Brown, a Church of Scotland minister. In 1954, Reverend Brown took a post at the St. Bryce parish in Kirkcaldy, a city in the Fife area that surrounds the Firth of Forth. During Brown’s youth, Fife suffered a steep economic decline occasioned by the closing of several factories in the area. Parishioners regularly turned up at the “manse,” as the rectory where the pastor and his family live is called in British parlance, to ask his father for help. A commitment to others was instilled in Brown and his brothers at a young age. On one occasion his parents left him home alone and a visitor turned up. “So as my parents taught me, I say, what do you want—help yourself! And when they come back, the town’s most notorious burglar is sitting in the kitchen,” he confessed in an interview with Bel Mooney for the Times of London.

A gifted student, Brown was put on a fast-track university-entrance program at Kirkcaldy High School when he was just ten years old, and was ready to enter Edinburgh University at age 16. That same year, he penned an essay on the program in which he described himself as “a guinea-pig,” according to a Times of London article by Ben Macin-tyre, and “the victim of a totally unsighted and ludicrous experiment in education, the result of which was to harm materially and mentally the guinea-pigs . I was lucky and passed, but many of my friends met with dismal failure, despair and a sense of uselessness.”

Despite the demands of the academic program, Brown still found time to excel in sports. He became a talented rugby player during his teen years, but his athletic career was cut short when he suffered a detached retina in his eye after a particularly brutal collision on the playing field. He underwent surgery three times, remaining in the hospital for up to a month each time in a dark room and keeping as still as possible. His vision in that eye could not be saved, however, and he was eventually fitted with an artificial eye. A few years later he noticed the same symptoms in his other eye; by this time the treatment options were more advanced, and the sight in his right eye was saved.

At Edinburgh University, Brown studied history and was active in student political organizations. Around campus he became known as “Red Gordon” for his leftist sympathies, and in 1972, the same year he earned his master’s degree, he was elected rector of the school. In this capacity, he chaired the school’s governing body, and famously challenged the University for not fully breaking ties with their academic peers in South Africa and Rhodesia, two nations that denied political rights to its black majority population. Brown’s first mention in a national newspaper came in a Times of London article from 1973 headlined “University clash with student rector” over the inclusion of representatives from both nations at an upcoming Congress of Commonwealth Universities conference.

While working toward his doctorate degree, Brown taught at Edinburgh University and later at the Glasgow College of Technology. His doctoral dissertation examined the role of the Scottish Labour Party in British politics in the decade following World War I, and he was himself a member of this offshoot of the larger Labour Party of Britain. He first ran for a seat in parliament in May of 1979, but lost, as did scores of other Labour Party incumbents and challengers. The Conservative (Tory) Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, swept to victory that year and, with their win, Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister.

In 1980, Brown switched careers and became a current affairs editor for Scottish Television. He also rose within the Scottish Labour Party, becoming its chair by 1983 and also winning a seat in the House of Commons in that year’s general elections. Another young rising name in the party who had also won a seat was Tony Blair, an Oxford-trained lawyer and onetime rock musician. As junior members, they shared an office in Westminster, where the Houses of Parliament meet, and both would rise within the party ranks and shape its future. The two were close allies for the next 14 years as the Tories remained in power through general elections in 1987 and 1992. Brown became known as a finance specialist within the Labour Party, and challenged Tory policies as the shadow (or opposition counterpart) to the chancellor of the exchequer in Thatcher’s government. The chancellor’s office oversees all aspects of the British economy, including the treasury, taxes, and annual budget.

For some years, Brown’s name had been discussed as a future Labour Party chief. In the British system, the party that wins the majority in the general election forms a government, with the party leader becoming prime minister. Brown’s longtime mentor was a fellow Scot, John Smith, and in 1992, when the leadership post became vacant, Brown chose not to run against Smith, who was an older, more experienced politician with wide support among both English and Scottish Labour MPs. Smith won, but died two years later after suffering a fatal heart attack. At this juncture, Brown was expected to announce his candidacy for the Labour leadership, but he did not. Tony Blair did, and won the ballot-ing at the 1994 party conference. Three years later, Blair and the Labour Party won the 1997 general election, marking the return of the party to power for the first time since 1979. Blair named Brown to become his cabinet’s chancellor of the exchequer.

Later, rumors arose that Blair and Brown had struck a quiet, informal agreement shortly after Smith’s death and a few weeks before the next party conference that would elect Blair as party chief. The terms of the arrangement varied: One thread asserted that should Blair lead Labour to victory and become prime minister, he would grant Brown an unprecedented degree of power as chancellor; another thread claimed that Blair would lead Labour to victory, and then serve just one term in office before stepping aside to let Brown advance to the party leadership and the prime minister’s office. The pact was said to have been made over a meal at a North London restaurant called Granita in May of 1994, and was chronicled in a 2003 fictionalized film, The Deal. The symbiotic relationship between Blair and Brown was also discussed in a 2005 book, Brown’s Britain, whose author, Robert Peston, was believed to have relied on sources close to Brown for the information. Peston’s book also alleged that by that time, the two were no longer speaking to one another.

Blair did not step down, but he did come close to being forced out of office after giving his support to U.S. President George W. Bush in the American leader’s bid to win European allies for the coming invasion of Iraq in March of 2003. Britain was the sole European power to condone the invasion and provide a significant number of troops, and Blair had made the decision against strong opposition, both from the public as well as warnings from within his own party that his leadership abilities were being questioned.

Brown, meanwhile, had earned mostly positive marks for his stewardship of Britain’s economy. He reduced some taxes, enacted Bank of England reforms, and took a firm stand on the controversial matter of whether the country would adopt the European Union’s single currency unit, the Euro. In June of 2004, he became the longest continuous serving chancellor since Nicholas Vansittart held the office from May of 1812 to December of 1822. Some sources note that Brown’s tenure has witnessed the longest period of sustained economic growth in British history.

By the time of the next general elections in May of 2005, Blair had mended fences, and the Labour Party won again. In September of 2006, Blair announced he would leave office within a year, and the following May gave a firm date. That same month, the nomination process for the party leadership formally began, but there were no strong challengers to the 308 nominations that the Brown received. He took part in a series of hustings, or public debates, in which he outlined his vision for the future of Britain. On June 22, the ballot nominating process ended, and two days later Brown was declared the new leader of the Labour Party. On June 27, Blair stepped down as prime minister and Brown formally met with Queen Elizabeth II in private, as is the tradition in British politics. The monarch asks the new prime minister to form a government.

There were several challenges for Brown during his first year in office. These began when a major terrorist plot was foiled in London just two days after he took office, followed by a failed suicide-bomb attack at the Glasgow InternationalAirport via a sport utility vehicle. Later came a mortgage scandal involving a major lender in England, Northern Rock, and revelations of misdeeds involving campaign donations to the Labour Party in exchange for peer-age titles. In foreign policy, Brown adopted a distinctly different attitude toward the White House than his predecessor, which became apparent when Brown made his first formal visit to the United States as prime minister in late July of 2007 to meet Bush at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland. “Gone were the chinos, first names, and chummy informality of the Bush-Blair summits,” noted Freedland in the New York Review of Books. “At Brown’s request, prime minister and president wore suits and addressed each other formally. Brown wanted to convey that the relationship from now on would be strictly business.”

Brown married in 2000 at the age of 49. His wife, Sarah Macauley, had enjoyed a successful career as a partner in a London public relations firm prior to her marriage. Their first child, a daughter named Jennifer Jane, was born in December of 2001 two months prematurely; she died of a brain hemor-rhage several days later. The tragedy prompted an outpouring of public support for the characteristically stoic chancellor, who did not return to his office at the Treasury for much of January. In 2003, Sarah Brown gave birth to a son they named John, followed in 2006 by a second child, James, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at four months old. The Browns have established a foundation named after their daughter, the Jennifer Jane Brown Research Trust, for research into the prevention of neonatal deaths.

Brown may remain in office at least until 2010, when he is required to call a general election. When Blair was still in office in 2005, the Labour government surpassed any of its previous records for holding power, and Brown seems determined to continue that legacy. In interviews, he has voiced regret that his work in London kept him away from Kirkcaldy and his aging parents for so many years, both of whom died in their 80s. Of his father, who passed away in 1998, the prime minister has reiterated what a lasting influence his father’s charitable actions had on him as a public servant. “He went through his life liked by everybody; I don’t think he made one single enemy,” Brown told Suzie Mackenzie in an interview that appeared in the Guardian. “That’s a long way from politics, I can tell you.”


Guardian (London, England), September 25, 2004, p. 14.

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

New York Review of Books, October 25, 2007.

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

Time, May 21, 2007, p. 54.

Times (London, England), March 20, 1973, p. 4; November 8, 2006, p. 4; May 19, 2007.

—Carol Brennan

Brown, Gordon

views updated May 21 2018

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.”


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.

Brown, (James) Gordon

views updated May 29 2018

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

Brown, Gordon

views updated May 23 2018

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.