Watching the dying days of the Labour Government, it is hard to imagine the Prime Minister as he was in times past.
Growing up amongst those who had lived through the history of the Labour Party, there were tales of heroic figures. My grandmother would talk of hearing Jimmy Maxton speaking at open air mass meetings. Maxton was leader of the Independent Labour Party, a small group to the left of the main party. There would be tales of Maxton’s mane of dark hair and Scots accent and the fiery oratory with which he captured the imagination of the crowds of working people who stood and listened. It is hard to imagine my grandmother, an admirer of Maxton, ever regarding Tony Blair as part of the British Labour tradition.
My grandmother died in January 1987. Perhaps out of respect to her memory, perhaps out of a desire to investigate robust alternatives to the Thatcherite philosophy that dominated the England of the late 1980s, I bought a biography of Maxton the following year, a paperback edition that was on sale in Waterstone’s; its author was a young Scottish member of parliament, elected to parliament first in 1983, Gordon Brown.
Only this evening, when remembering the radicalism of which Gordon Brown had written a generation ago, did the memory come back that the tired figure, who still haunts the rooms of 10 Downing Street, is very different on the inside than he is on the out. He was elected to parliament as Doctor James Gordon Brown; his doctoral thesis was on the Labour movement in 1920s Scotland, in which the subject of his biography figured prominently.
Reading the biography of Maxton and imagining the appalling conditions endured by working people in 1930s Glasgow, it is hard to imagine that Dr Brown was not profoundly affected by the matters of which he wrote. Jimmy Maxton’s experiences were not theoretical, they were of a Clydeside of injustice and poverty.
Perhaps Prime Minister Brown will go back to being Dr Brown, telling tales of struggles for dignity and fairness; perhaps when he starts on the lecture circuit he will tell stories not of the grubby politics of Tony Blair, but of people of integrity, people who stood for what they believed, even if it meant unpopularity and marginalisation..
It used to be said in the days of Michael Foot that Dennis Thatcher, husband of a Prime Minister implacably opposed to anything for which Foot might have stood, regarded Michael Foot with warm regard as a writer and a scholar. It was said that Dennis Thatcher could not understand how a bibliophile like Foot coped in the mundane, prosaic world of party politics.
Dr James Gordon Brown has years left in which to re-establish himself as a major figure; not trapped in the grim realities of things as they are, but able to climb to mountain tops and see visions of things as they might be. There are more heroes than Jimmy Maxton whose stories deserve to be told.