Radical without revolutionary zeal

July 25, 2003

Olga Wojtas traces the roots of Gordon Brown's pragmatic socialism back to his student days, when he challenged the established order and won.

Last week, Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, was awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, Edinburgh University. But in 1972 there was a question mark as to whether the history student would graduate at all.

Paul Addison, director of Edinburgh's Centre for Second World War Studies, who was then one of Brown's lecturers, recalls that the problem was not one of ability but communication. "His finals papers were almost illegible," he says. "I can remember poring over them, wondering if it would be possible to work out what he'd said and therefore assess it."

The seven papers were eventually deciphered and earned Brown a first-class honours degree, a rare achievement in those days. "His work was always of very high quality from the very beginning," Addison says. "He was clearly someone with considerable intellect, an outstanding undergraduate."

His tutors had had little difficulty reading his handwritten essays, but an additional pressure during the finals may have been problems with his eyesight: just before he came to university, an injury in a rugby match left him blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. Even in his first year, says Addison, Brown seemed more mature than other students, despite entering university aged only 16. "Maybe in an odd sort of way [the accident] helped, giving him a serious challenge to overcome."

Unlike most students, Brown had no problems with time management, displaying great capacity for hard work, immersing himself in reading for seminars and writing high-quality essays that he always handed in on time.

Scottish students are notoriously passive in tutorials but Brown was one of the few to put forward interpretations that differed from those of his tutors and argue them through.

By his fourth year, he was a fully fledged socialist, writing a paper for Addison that later evolved into a book on the life of John Maxton, founder of the Independent Labour Party. But while Brown had a formidable intellect, he was far from a solitary workaholic. He was active in student journalism and left-wing politics at a time when student unrest was sweeping Europe and apathy was not on the agenda. He also played hard.

"There were lots of parties and pubs where Gordon featured. He was good fun. We would often go for a drink at the Meadows Bar after class," Addison says. "He had a glamorous girlfriend, Princess Marguerite of Romania, and he was very much in demand socially. To know Gordon and invite him to your party was a sign of great success."

But Brown's charisma did not extend as far as the university management. In the upper echelons, his political involvement was resented. "There was a big generation gap," Addison recalls. "People in authority had been through the war. To them, the radical student politics were incomprehensible. They could not understand why nice middle-class students were rebelling when they ought to be grateful to be in a safe civilised country."

When Brown graduated, he not only moved on to a PhD but also successfully stood for election as university rector. It was seen as an affront to the order of things that a student would stand for the post, even though it was student-elected. Worse still, Brown insisted on exercising the rector's traditionally waived right to chair the university court. He was ostracised by the university establishment, which arguably helped him develop the necessary steel for a life in politics.

"People on the university court never really grasped the person they were dealing with, because they had this notion of a socialist student politician as someone irresponsible, riding a fashion," says Addison.

"Gordon was very conscientious and efficient about taking the chair of court. He was a student politician but he was serious about coming out with workable plans and proposals."

Brown was not a romantic rebel, nor a gesture politician, says Addison.

"What inspired him was the Independent Labour Party, something midway between the parliamentary Labour Party, which was too reformist, and a revolutionary Marxist position, which I'm sure he didn't believe in at all.

He talked about class conflict but he didn't believe in revolution. He believed in democratic socialism with practical plans."

Addison finds Brown's choice of Maxton as a subject ironic, given Maxton's romantic socialism that led him to break with the Labour Party after 1931 and disappear into the political wilderness. "[That was] a mistake Gordon was never likely to repeat. Gordon did try to credit the Maxton of the 1920s with constructive plans for reducing poverty and unemployment, but he was writing a little bit of Brown into Maxton."

The far left or anarchistic image student radicals had in London in the mid-1970s made Addison keen to stress Brown's seriousness when the rector applied for an academic post in the capital. Addison's reference said:

"Political classifications tend to be subjective, but I would describe Mr Brown as a moderate radical. He is a most sincere and modest person with a strong sense of social responsibility and the great asset of a good sense of humour. As editor of the student paper and chairman of the student publication board, he revealed his capacity for patient and careful administration."

When the rectorship ended, Brown briefly held a couple of academic posts and worked for Scottish Television. But it was clear that his ambition was to go into politics. "His postgraduate work was on the Labour Party. If you want to look back at the origins of his political career, his PhD was probably the start of it," says Addison, who was one of Brown's supervisors.

He remembers Brown's thesis - on the Labour Party and political change in Scotland in the early part of the 20th century - as being extraordinarily thorough and detailed. He was thinking deeply about the role of the party in relation to British society and capitalism at a time when the movement was undergoing severe internal convulsions. Addison believes Brown has always worked things out ideologically, to reach a well thought-out position, and he disagrees with those who accuse Brown of selling out politically.

"I think he's exactly the same person," Addison says. "Politics is about compromise. He's changed his mind in light of circumstances and events and worked out a way in his own mind of combining market forces with elements of old-fashioned ethical socialism," he says.

Addison believes it is no accident that Brown chose to study history. He saw how the Labour governments of 1945 and 1965 had come in on a wave of euphoria, only to be wrecked by foreign-exchange crises. As chancellor, he first made sure that the finance was sound and that he had a war chest before launching into major public spending.

"He's always regarded academic knowledge as useful knowledge," Addison says. "There's a peculiar type of Philistinism that says knowledge that isn't instantly applicable isn't useful. Gordon saw thought, theories, hypotheses as useful. [He's] genuinely interested in working out public policy. He's always been a policy wonk, a think-tank in his own right."

This focus on intellect and reason, and what is mistakenly seen by many English people as dourness, makes it questionable whether Brown could ever touch the emotions of middle England in the way the prime minister has done, Addison believes.

"In a way, he and Tony Blair are roped together by historical necessity.

Gordon is better at appealing to old Labour, while Blair is better at appealing to middle England. They represent the two pillars of that coalition and it's difficult to see how either could thrive without the other."

But Addison comments that, had his former student been prime minister before the Iraq war, "he would not have made the kind of unqualified statements about weapons of mass destruction made by Blair and Bush. He would have looked at the intelligence data very much as a PhD student looking at a source, and would have been very careful."

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