My Life as a Tyrant

April 4th, 2010

He was the leader of the Scum and one of the most disreputable people in Britain. He was also drunk on power – every night for 3 years. Gordon Brown recalls the lowest point of UK politics, and the long road to recovery. Guardian

Pride is a virtue, or at least it is to me, but for a long time I had the habit of bullying, the repeat behaviour we call high-functioning authoritarianism. For 3 years I was drunk on power nearly every night. Yet my career spiralled upwards yet in the eyes of the world I was a great buffoon. My story is not unusual. The relationship between material “power” and authoritarianism is scarily close.

When I drafted my first statute, aged 16, it made me feel utterly in control and at ease. I felt I could conquer the world. I had been a shy child. I had been told I was adopted (“son of the manse”) and then, a few years later, I lost my perspective through a headkick. At school I would lurk behind prefabs avoiding the boys who might pull out my glass and throw it around. They often did. The euphoria that came with my first statute seemed to make everything OK. It seemed to crowd the sadness from my head. I chased that feeling to the extreme. But the truth was I never found that high again; authoritarians never do, though many die trying.

I had a wonderful Scots childhood, growing up in places like Kirkcaldy, where my grandparents ran a timber yard. Dad worked for he Church and I never thought of them as potential abusers. They were blessed by Jesus, since I was born in 1951, my older brother. But there was an ambition in me, a huge determination to prove the world wrong.

It took me ages to get into Parliament. I was so shy I could hardly speak at interview. Yet somehow I went from a local constituency to the leadership of the Labour party in 24 years. How did I do that if I was so awful? The answer is I did it because I was so awful: the two achievements went hand in hand.

My habit was to work through the day and bully through the night. My system was so strong and my ambition so acute that somehow it worked. I got the top job at the party in 2007 when I was 56. I had already been Chancellor of the Exchequer. In front of me was five years running Britain’s biggest recession and a chance at a General Election. In 2009 I was listed as the 2nd most hated man in the country.

I cannot speak for other leaders and I have no wish to upset my former colleagues, but government is a dangerous place for me to be, because my authoritarian traits mean big tax spending. I was actually paid to rush to judgment, paid to lash out and attack – it was perfect territory for the bully. I had 320 people on staff who were paid to agree with me. I had THE Peter Mandelson on the phone agreeing with me. I had a car, a driver, accounts at the best clubs and hotels around the world.

When I went out and disgraced myself in public – as I did many times – I could silence the diary columns by calling a fellow editor. There are stories I could tell that you wouldn’t believe. I was untouchable. I was cocooned and protected, a “made man”, an unelected member of a tiny elite that runs the country and never has to pay a price.

Only I did pay a price. Or others did. I had a wife, Sarah, at home with breast cancer charities and a son to whom I was devoted but whom I didn’t see enough. Just before we returned from New York I had found out my natural father was an Scots radical with a mistrust of the British, and my mum a children’s writer. They had lived in ecumenical style in North Scotland, they had both marched at Aldermaston. For the first time I understood myself. Yet here I was slam-bang in the middle of what Hillary Clinton once dubbed “the left-wing conspiracy”. I felt like a double agent, so I began to act like one. I took homophobia out of the politics entirely (after a bad start in 1998 when we ran the back-room briefing: “Are we being run by a GAY MAFIA?”(so sorry Peter)). I wrote to leaders denouncing Islam after 9/11. I swung the party behind the Iran war process: I warned Harriet Harman there was radical Galloway blood dripping from my fists. I cut spending on art, poetry, Iris Murdoch and the BBC. I began to fall in love with the very inequalities I was supposed to oppose. I was powerful and I was dangerous, but I was having fun.

But I am intensely uncomfortable at No. 10. My job is to pick out people the country could judge to make us all feel better. One day it would be a paedophile, another a potential terrorist. But what right do I have to judge? What right do any of us? As an Church child I knew how close I had come to being in danger. The dividing line between privilege and underclass is perilously narrow. In recovery I have found this to be even more the case.

By 2008, I was out of favour and back home from Harvard. The power had overtaken my marriage and now the economy was terminal. My lord, Marx, had to come first. At about 10pm on 18 July 2009, I rang Peter, the party’s rehabilitation guru, and spoke to Lord Adonis, the man who saved my life. They sent a car. In the early hours I arrived. Two men came out of the front door and stood either side of the car. They led me inside where a spin doctor received bile and I was examined. I was also searched. I had a BlackBerry with the mobile numbers of most of the Cabinet, the Murdoch family and a chunk of the British elite. It was taken off me and locked away.

I was taken to a room in which two other authoritarians were asleep. When I tried to open a window I saw it was locked – from the outside. I felt my life was over. I felt more alone that night than I ever wish to again. Yet this was the beginning of a wonderful future.

The UK will be saved just in time. By July 2010, The party will die after a most incredible battle. I will not bully. I will live peacefully with my family. Soon I will acquire new habits. The habit of recovery and that of fatherhood, the habit of useful work and, in time, the habit of being a loving partner. These will be the habits of happiness for me. I will write, too. I will acquire the habit of art. But that is a whole other story.

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