Paul Anderson, review of Gordon Brown: The First Year in Power by Hugh Pym and Nick Kochan (Bloomsbury, £16.99), Tribune, 19 July 1998
Try as I might, I cannot for the life of me work out why Hugh Pym and Nick Kochan have written this book. Gordon Brown is certainly an important political figure — or at least he seems to be right now. There is perhaps room in the market for a book-length study of his political career and economic policies that is more serious and more critical than the hagiography by Paul Routledge published earlier this year. But Pym and Kochan have not even attempted to produce such a book. This is an account, pure and simple, of the Iron Chancellor’s first year in power, only slightly more distant from its subject than Routledge’s tome.
It gives a reasonably competent narrative of events, and there is a lot of detail on Brown’s seriousness of character, his obsession with work and his staff — in particular his chief adviser, Ed Balls, and his spin-doctor, Charlie Whelan. If you missed the kite-flying, wavering and intra-Cabinet strife last autumn over whether or not Britain would join the single European currency in the first wave, you can read all about them here. The same goes for the row between Brown and Tony Blair sparked off by Routledge’s biography.
If you have been reading the newspapers for the past year, however, you won’t get much of substance from Pym and Kochan that you don’t know already — though you might find yourself getting extraordinarily irritated with their unyieldingly breathless prose and their addiction to hyperbole. Here, for example, is their account of the drafting of the Chancellor’s Commons statement on the single currency that finally brought to an end the weeks of uncertainty and farce last autumn:
Brown’s familiar speech-writing team was ordered to report for duty. Dr Colin Currie cleared his desk at his Edinburgh hospital and caught the first shuttle down to London. As usual he was put up by Geoffrey Robinson at his flat above the Grosvenor House Hotel, but there was no time to enjoy the Paymaster-General’s five-star hospitality. Currie rolled up his sleeves and joined Balls, Miliband and Whelan in the Chancellor’s private office. In all their years crafting prose from Brown’s machine-gun bursts of ideas this speech was the most difficult. Brown as always paced the room, churning over the momentous challenge before him, striving to channel his thoughts. As Currie remembered it, ‘Gordon is at his best when he is in trouble — his back was really against the wall at that time.’ The speech writers were chivvied and chided as they struggled to capture the ideas flying around them…
This stuff would be just about forgivable if Pym and Kochan stopped occasionally to explain where Brown’s policy ideas have come from or if they rounded off their narrative with a critical prognosis of New Labour economics. They do neither. As with Derek Draper’s asinine Blair’s 100 Days last year, it’s not worth buying this book if you’ve already read the extracts in the Sunday Times.