UNTIL he surfaced a couple of days ago to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry little had been seen or heard of Gordon Brown since he left Downing Street in the summer of 2010.
It was a performance worthy of a Gielgud or an Olivier, embracing the gamut of emotions from A to Z. At least it would have been if Mr Brown were an actor. But what we saw at Leveson was not a man impersonating another man. Rather this was our former prime minister as he really is, charming when he wants to be, truculent when he doesn't, easy to anger and slow to appease, like a child denied sweets in a supermarket. Cumulatively, it was a tragic sight, the personification of the adage that all political careers are bound to end in tears.
As he often did when in front of the cameras, Mr Brown looked uncomfortable in his own skin. It was as if he'd found himself on one of those awful reality TV shows where an overweight person is asked to strip naked prior to undergoing a life-changing experience. It's true, he was defiant, insisting that he'd never declared war on the Murdoch empire. Similarly, he was adamant that neither he nor his wife had wanted to use the Sun to tell the prurient masses that their son has cystic fibrosis. But one's sympathy was tempered by his avowal that he knew nothing about the plots and media briefing against Tony Blair. "Tittle-tattle. Rumour. Gossip," he said, in a manner that convinced no-one.
He looked jowly and grey, at 61. He had got what he set out to achieve but had lost it through no-one's fault but his own. Knowing that as he surely does, he must now resolve what to do with the rest of his life. He can either cower in Kirkcaldy and environs, making occasional forays to Westminster, or do what many others have had to do when they've been seen to fail, which is pick themselves up and get on with it. Above all, he must leave history to judge his record in government and "live, live!" as Lambert Strether advises in Henry James's classic novel The Ambassadors.
That, though, will require Mr Brown to become a different person, which may not be easy but is not impossible. Those who know him look back in hope to what he was like in his student guise when he exuded charisma and energy, intellect and idealism. He wanted desperately to change society, to make the world a better place. His reformatory zeal came from his father, a Church of Scotland minister. No-one ever doubted Mr Brown's commitment or his essential goodness. His heart was set on improving the lot of the less well-off. That, in a nutshell, is what he was about. He was clever, persuasive, dynamic, willing to tackle totems and tilt at the establishment, as he did when rector at Edinburgh University.
This fearlessness, however, deserted him at several points in his career. More than anyone in modern British politics he must ask himself the question: what if? What if he had proved less hesitant after John Smith died in 1994? Had he acted more decisively he, not Mr Blair, could have been the next Labour leader. Then, in 2007, after he and Alistair Darling had brought back the banks from the brink of bankruptcy, he dithered when he had the opportunity to call an early General Election, which he might have won with an inspired campaign, and the moment was suddenly gone. What if he had taken the risk when he had the chance?
Such questions doubtless keep him awake at night. For Mr Brown, becoming prime minister was meant to be the beginning of a new era but by the time he did the country was weary of Labour and weary, too, of its undignified infighting. For that Mr Brown was as guilty as anyone.
What he failed to appreciate was that he and Mr Blair were a great double act, and that when it broke up his old friend would be Paul Simon to his Art Garfunkel and not vice versa.
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