Brown’s cool days

Originally published in The Sunday Times, 26 November 1995

Some say he’s blown his chance of being PM. Last week, he was attacked by his own colleagues. But an unexplored episode from his past shows why Gordon Brown should never be taken for granted. Tim Dawson reports

In September 1970 London stockbrokers Buckmaster and Moore bought 11,000 shares in a mining concern on the Johannesburg stock exchange. They added these to a portfolio worth more than £500,000 of other South African shares that the company managed on behalf of a client in Scotland.

Like all speculators, their client needed high-yielding investments and for this the Johannesburg exchange was second to none. Returns on shares in South African mines, where most of the £500,000 was invested, averaged a world-beating 10 to 15% per annum.

But these profits came at a human cost. Some companies forced black miners to live like slaves in fenced enclosures and paid them less than one tenth as much as their white counterparts. Others had calmed industrial unrest by shooting strikers. Blood money perhaps, but it boosted the bottom line.

Two months later, Buckmaster and Moore delivered a 48-page account detailing the South African dealings. Secrecy was vital. Their client was Edinburgh university. And its principal was Michael Swann who had recently agreed to sponsor the Anti-Apartheid movement, thereby allowing it to use his name in its campaign to encourage organisations to withdraw investments from South Africa and speed the end of whites-only rule.

Swann put the report into a bottom drawer and hoped it would never see the light of day. South Africa was an emotive issue among his students. Months earlier, a mob of them clashed with police as they tried to keep the all-white South African rugby team off Murrayfield’s turf. To make matters worse, the students were now demanding to know if any university assets were invested in South Africa.

The management of Edinburgh university had no inkling of the furore they were about to unleash, nor the crucial role it was to play in launching the career of one of Britain’s leading politicians. Their way of doing things had changed little since the war. There was no right-to-know. Even press releases bore the legend “private and confidential”. No matter how many times students occupied the buildings around the Old Quad, Swann had easily resisted them. Decisions taken over a sherry with trusty aides were more commodious than negotiating with angry young radicals. Swann thought he could get away with it.

Under pressure from the students, Swann recommended that the October meeting of the University Court (its board of directors) issue a statement saying: “The university does not have directly, or so far as it is aware, indirectly any interests in companies known to be active in the support of apartheid.” To other members of Court it seemed inconceivable that the principal would lie, so the statement was published.

Only five people had access to the secret stockbroker’s report. So sickened was one of them, however, that in the middle of December he took the matter into his own hands. He left a copy of the document in a toilet deep inside the old college building. Then he rang the student publications board and suggested that somebody pay a visit.

GORDON BROWN had enrolled as an undergraduate at Edinburgh in 1967 aged 16. He had come through an accelerated programme to encourage Fifers to go to university and came top in a competition for bursaries. Playing for Kirkcaldy High School’s rugby 1st XV he took a kick to his head. Nothing seemed to be wrong but during his first weeks at Edinburgh he nearly lost his sight. After four operations doctors managed to save his right eye but not his left.

He missed much of his first year but once back on his feet gravitated to the student publications board which produced a newspaper called Student.

These were heady times. In May 1968 demonstrating students took over part of Paris for several weeks. Radicalism swept Britain’s universities as students opted for sex, soft drugs and sit-ins. Deference to authority was gone for ever. Even then, Brown could be a little dour. Flared loon pants, leather jackets and loud jumpers were all the rage among his friends. Brown wore a tweed jacket and a long tie that hung below his waist. He was one of the few male activists of the time who never grew a beard and, though his hair reached his collar by 1972, it progressed no further. But he could ferret out a good story and type like a madman so they dubbed him “Boredom Beaver Brown” and made him editor of the newspaper.

The significance of the tables of figures and company names in the stockbroker’s report was not immediately obvious. Brown and his team poured over them in their cramped offices in Buccleuch Place and soon realised what they had. There would not normally have been another issue of the newspaper until January but waiting was unthinkable. A fund was raided and the publications board got to work. As the bundles of their four-page Student special disappeared to be passed among students and staff, Brown and the publications board caught up on sleep. They knew their story was dynamite. But not even Brown realised that for the next five years he would be caught up in its shockwaves.

Throughout January, Brown motivated the campaign against the university from behind his publications board typewriter. “Sell the Shares,” demanded stickers and posters on every wall in the university, while meetings of social clubs and societies, as well as tutorials and staff bodies, passed resolutions demanding action from Swann.

For Swann, the damage was done. He changed stockbrokers and prepared to liquidate the South African interests. He was petitioned by 2,500 students and almost 300 staff. The Anti-Apartheid movement insisted that he disassociate himself from them. His whole university had turned against him. And before he could take his proposals to the University Court, he collapsed with a viral infection which confined him to bed for a fortnight.

BROWN was an increasingly charismatic leader. Despite his long hours in the library, holding his books to his face because of his eyesight, he drew people into his campaigns. “We should run someone for the Rectorship,” he argued. Fierce opposition from within the publications board could not prevent him winning the day.

The system of government in Scotland’s ancient universities was codified in law in 1858. Students were entitled to elect a Rector every three years to look after their interests. That person was nominally entitled to chair the University’s Court. In practice, students had opted for politicians and celebrities but few attended Court more than once or played a significant role. No student had ever been elected to the post.

Brown and his friends alighted on Jonathan Wills, the newspaper’s cartoonist. But by this time Brown was thinking three jumps ahead of the game. Wills won the contest, beating the humourist Willie Rushton. Wills realised, however, that his victory was largely symbolic. He knew that he did not have the force of character to really shake up the system and announced that he would serve just one year.

By the following November the mystique around Brown had grown. With his long dark hair and full, sensual lips he had looks to equal any rock singer. His girlfriend, Margarita, with whom he shared his flat, was not only beautiful but also a Princess, albeit of Romania from where her father had been ousted in 1947. And Brown had just taken a First in history said to be the best the university had awarded since the war.

He did not push himself forward but any other candidate would have been pointless. His bandwagon was unstoppable. Hundreds of students nominated him while “Brown’s Sugars” mini-skirted women in “Gordon for me” T-shirts urged students to the polls. When the papers were counted Brown had nearly double the number of his nearest opponent.

The University Court to which he was elected could have been the executive committee of Edinburgh’s establishment. The senior academics, head masters and town councillors were used to Principal Swann chairing its meetings genteel affairs which were over within an hour. With Brown in the chair, the University Court was a battlefield. Meetings went on for five or six hours as the 22-year-old Rector tried to drag the ancient institution into the late 20th century. But before he had made any progress, the establishment counter-attacked.

Glowering across the court’s table at Brown, Lord Cameron, one of Scotland’s most senior high court judges, proposed that the rules should be changed to prevent the rector from chairing their meetings. Lord Robertson, another senior high court judge, seconded him. Only Brown voted against. Heartened by this, Cameron suggested that, as the assistant, or assessor, who accompanied Brown to court meetings had recently led an occupation of the Old College, he should be barred from attending court forthwith. Brown stood alone as vote after vote went against him.

But back at his flat in Marchmont Road, Brown had made a careful study of the university’s rules. His room looked like an explosion in a bookshop, but his thoughts were clear. The judges had no right to do this, he decided. He took them to the High Court.

The case was the talk of the legal community. It was most unusual for one judge to sit in judgement over two of his colleagues. Brown was sufficiently nervous that he left the case to his counsel and retired to Marchmont Road with fingers crossed.

But Lord Keith’s judgement on his noble colleagues was in Brown’s favour. Brown had understood the university’s constitution; two of Scotland’s finest legal minds had not. The meetings of Court since his assistant was excluded were null and void. Brown could appoint whoever he wished.

Swann was incandescent. In a series of angry meetings he pushed through more and more votes to try and remove Brown but by then he had dual defences.

To change university rules, Swann needed the consent of the Privy Council and if they were to win this they had to demonstrate that their rule change was widely supported. At the General Council of Graduates old friends from the publications board infiltrated meetings to argue Brown’s case, while academics who had taught him pushed supportive motions through the university’s senate.

But it was from above, rather than below, that the university met its final defeat. Brown lobbied frenetically to muster support but there was one party to whom even he did not feel able to place a persuasive phone call.

The Duke of Edinburgh was the university’s chancellor. He enjoyed this ceremonial role but did not intervene in internal politics. When canvassed for his opinion on the rule change, however, his answer was emphatic. There was no case for removing the Rector’s right to chair the court. With Philip on the side of the opposition, the Privy Council was bound to reject the rule change. Swann was defeated.

Brown had not spoken to anyone at Buckingham Palace but the Prince had been discreetly lobbied. To this day nobody knows how Brown pulled it off but he did have an intriguing royal connection: Philip was his girlfriend’s god-father.

In defeat Edinburgh university was magnanimous. Even Lord Cameron learned to live with Brown’s brusque manner and forthright views.

He devoted the rest of his Rectorship to persuading the university to involve itself more with Edinburgh and also did a deal giving students a permanent seat on the university court. In return, students were barred from standing for Rector. The events of this period are remarkable in themselves. Brown’s determined, meticulously researched approach revolutionised the university’s government despite the efforts of a deeply entrenched establishment. The energies of student radicals elsewhere were often expended on campaigns which had little chance of success. Perhaps more remarkable, though, is the man who emerged from Edinburgh university.

MOST who know Brown well say the key to understanding him is his father. Reverend John Brown was of Fife farming stock and became a Church of Scotland Minister at St Brycedale Church in Kirkcaldy, where Brown and his brothers grew up.

Now retired, he is remembered in Kirkcaldy as a deeply compassionate man who put social justice before theological hair splitting. Brown acknowledges this outlook had a profound influence upon him. A collection of his father’s sermons reveals numerous lines strikingly similar to ones Brown uses in speeches today.

Consistent too are both the values Brown espouses and the political methods he employs to pursue them.

There is little in his student journalism that would embarrass him today. Indeed, some phrases he first used writing in Student newspaper continue to appear in his work. Writing about the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in in 1971, he said: “The most untapped asset in Great Britain is the creative ability of working people”. With slight variations he has repeated this line thousands of times, just last weekend, speaking about his tax proposals, he was saying: “The biggest asset of any economy is the skills and education of its people.”

He also deploys the lessons he learned in political organisation with peerless skill. In Parliament he has lieutenants in all the key shadow teams who owe their first loyalty to him. He is the only shadow cabinet member without whose agreement Tony Blair would find it impossible to significantly alter party policy.

Even his constituency party in Dunfermline East is a model of New Labour. Like Tony Blair’s in Sedgefield it ran an early pilot mass membership scheme. And except for the three Scottish CLPs with social clubs, it now has the largest membership in the country.

Even his domestic chaos has spilled over from student days. Not until 1987 did he leave his student digs for a house in the constituency. Twice police have surveyed the aftermath of burglaries at his house. On both occasions they concluded that the place had been ransacked only for Brown to explain that things looked pretty much as he left them.

He and Blair shone almost immediately when they entered the Commons and provided much of the impetus to propel Kinnock’s modernisation of the Labour party. But in their approach to political persuasion Brown and Blair could not be more different. It is perhaps this that finally decided who would succeed John Smith.

Brown’s forte is facts, followed by soundbites. As he rose through the party, this served him well. Again and again his beavering has turned up information which could be deployed to devastating advantage. Ploughing through a mountain of figures in the Government’s competitiveness review he spotted a table that others had missed. It showed that Britain had fallen from thirteenth to eighteenth in the world prosperity league a fact he has trumpeted mercilessly ever since.

He is a politician to his fingertips. But this style and his discomfort in front of a camera possibly a result of his eye injury do not make him a sparkling television performer.

Blair is a natural who uses his own life to make political capital. He says he does not feel like a politician and projects his personal experiences in order to pitch his appeals to the emotions.

Brown’s aides contend it is no bad thing for an aspirant Labour chancellor to appear a man of sober seriousness. But it is impossible not to wonder what it feels like to have one’s leadership ambitions thwarted by your closest political friend.

This week Brown and Kenneth Clarke will do battle over their rival plans; one for a cut in the basic rate of income tax, the other for a new 10 pence tax band. It is a game of high stakes; the outcome will probably determine who will be inhabiting Number 11 Downing Street eighteen months from now. The Tories hope that after more than 20 years in opposition to his university and now the Tory party this has become Brown’s natural home. But they would do well to remember how his stormy period at Edinburgh university ended.

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