WACL Speaker Dinner, 23rd October 2008
Mr Brown's father, John, was a Church of Scotland minister for 40 years. He was a strong influence and died in 1998, aged 84. His mother Elizabeth, known as Bunty, died in 2004 aged 86. Until Gordon was three, the family had lived in Glasgow, a city scarred by acute poverty and rising unemployment. The experience in Glasgow defined the social conscience of his father, Dr Brown, and, in turn, had a decisive impact on his son's philosophy. "Our father never told us which way he voted," says John Brown, "but you knew, because of the poverty that he had seen, that he leaned towards Labour." However, curiously, Gordon was named after his mother Elizabeth's brother who was a member of the Conservative Party.
School – Kirkcaldy West and Kirkcaldy High, Gordon, John and Andrew Brown were brought up in the manse in Kirkcaldy, where they enjoyed, by comparison to other families, a relatively privileged existence. When Gordon was four he enrolled at Kirkcaldy West, the local primary school, where the pupils learnt to write on slate with slate pencils. Gordon excelled at sums and was set increasingly difficult tasks by his teacher, Aileen Mason. At 10, he joined Kirkcaldy High, an ancient school with a new 1950s campus (The economist Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations, is also an old boy). It was selective in its intake and its 1,200 pupils were given a "hothouse" education. At lunchtimes at Kirkcaldy High, he and his friend, Murray Elder, had debates on socialism with Miss Shaw, the librarian and a Tory.
When the time came to make money, he did so for a good cause. Gordon and his brother, John, founded The Gazette, whose proud boast was that it was Scotland's only newspaper sold in aid of African refugees. The 10-page paper, with a circulation of a few hundred, was produced on a duplicating machine, sold for three pence (later sixpence), and was inspired by one of their father's sermons. The Gazette became the vehicle for the burgeoning political philosophy of our longest serving Chancellor and provided the first glimpse of his now famous Presbyterian streak. For example, in April 1962, aged 11, he wrote an article about a church campaign in favour of television commercials against the twin demons of alcohol and tobacco. Gordon concluded his piece with a typically opinionated flourish: "Let us hope that this plan will be a success and that the sale of drink and cigarettes to the younger and older generation will fall when these [commercials] against drink and cigarettes are shown."
As its sports editor and, since he was a fanatical fan of Raith Rovers (then in the Scottish first division), the team dominated every back page. He sold programmes at half-time at the ground, Stark's Park, in return for a free ticket. These days, John Brown, aged four, has been spotted on his father Gordon's knee at Raith's home matches (Brown is also a member of the consortium which led a community buy-out of the club in December 2005).
By the age of 12, he had already helped with the local Labour candidate's unsuccessful general election campaign against Sir Alec Douglas-Home, pushing Labour Party leaflets through the letter boxes of neighbours' homes, and, while most of Gordon's schoolfriends cared little about the assassination of JFK, he was devastated. Kenn McLeod, 57, who followed him from Kirkcaldy High to Edinburgh, said: "Gordon saw him as the future and could not believe the future had been so brutally snuffed out. He was shocked and stunned. He kept saying, 'I cannot believe that this has happened'."
At 14, he passed nine O-levels and just after his 15th birthday Gordon took his Highers, (the equivalent of A-levels), securing five grade As – including Maths, English, and History – that confirmed the young Brown's prodigious talent. Gordon was part of the E-stream – the E stood for early – which fast tracked the brightest 16-year-olds to university. At Kirkcaldy High School, he was a fearless member of the scrum – playing flanker – in the rugby team at 15, while the other boys were 17 and 18; he was a junior tennis champion and played the violin in the orchestra.His passion for sports however resulted in a rugby accident which left him blind in one eye.To this day he has to wear a glass eye and were it not for the skill of the doctors he may have lost his other eye. This life changing event he claims was to become one of the driving forces behind his passion for the national health service.
Edinburgh University – At Edinburgh University, where he took a first in history and wrote a PhD on the Labour socialist movement in Scotland. Bob Cuddihy, a colleague in student politics and a local television presenter, remembers: "Everybody was concerned about his eye. They would form a protective circle around him in the pub. There was always a queue of lasses, including my girlfriend, who were admirers. He had an energy, magnetism, and a terrific voice. I saw the power Gordon had to mesmerise people." After editing The Student magazine, in which he famously exposed the university's investments in pro-apartheid South Africa, he became the second ever student rector; chairman of the university court and second in importance only to the chancellor, the Duke of Edinburgh. He was 21. His campaign was backed by an enthusiastic group of women known as the Brown Sugars, forerunners of the Blair Babes. He was also very messy, even by student standards. One flatmate has commented: "He was oblivious to his domestic surroundings. But it was at least better than his first flat. When I visited that a few years earlier, I vowed never to go back. There should have been a bio-hazard sign on it. It was a slum."
Scottish Television and later life – After university and a spell of teaching at Edinburgh and then at Glasgow College of Technology, he began work as a researcher at Scottish Television, where colleagues recall an impressive young man who did a mean impression of the fascist Oswald Mosley during a mock interview. But his heart was set on a career in politics. He first stood for an Edinburgh seat, with little hope of success, in the 1979 general election which swept Margaret Thatcher to power. He was then selected for the safe Labour seat of Dunfermline East in his family's backyard. When he announced his resignation to fight the seat in the 1983 general election, Bill Brown, the managing director of Scottish TV, declared himself unimpressed. He asked: "Can you tell me why we employed that young man?" Russell Galbraith, who was head of news and current affairs, replied: "Mark my words, one day we will be working for him."