It was Gordon Brown's tragedy to covet a job for which he was never remotely suited. It is understandable that Brown a Member of Parliament at 32, a fearsome intellect, a man of essential decency and compassion and someone who instinctively understood how technology and the coming of a global economy had changed the world should long have wanted to be Prime Minister of his nation. Brown would have wanted that even if he had not believed he had agreed to let Tony Blair become the leader of Britain's Labour party in 1994 in exchange for a promise that one day Brown would succeed him.
But Brown should have resisted the temptation. There have long been demons on his shoulder that made him a distrustful man, suspicious of all but a loyal coterie. He carried slights some real, some imagined around with him like an errant lock of hair flicked over his dark brow. Together, these flaws, cringemakingly documented in Andrew Rawnsley's extraordinary recent book The End of the Party, were enough to mean that Brown was unlikely ever to find the generosity and collegiality of spirit that are essential to leading a Cabinet government well. But beyond that, in a long career in politics, Brown never remotely mastered its arts of presentation, appealing to the public with an easy smile and a winning charm. He rarely looked as if he enjoyed holding power. And that eventually prompted British voters to ask themselves, as it were, Why shouldn't we put the Prime Minister out of his misery? Well, now they have.
So what will this enormously talented man with years ahead of him, let us hope, at 59 do now? To try to imagine a future for Brown, to see where he might go, it helps to look back into his past, to examine where he's from. Supposed national traits are overdone as explanations of character, of course, but Brown is a Scot to his fingertips: a son of the manse whose father was a notable figure in the Church of Scotland, educated in Edinburgh, at home in Fife.
If you can see something of Scotland's dark and damp winters in Brown's brooding mien, you don't have to spend long with him to know that he has absorbed the lessons of Scotland's intellectual and political history. Brown has always had an emotional attachment to the collective advancement of the working class; he is, after all, the biographer of John Maxton, a leading Scottish socialist in the first half of the last century. But Brown is also a son of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment. With TIME London bureau chief Catherine Mayer, I once spent a delightful afternoon in Brown's house on the Firth of Forth as he told us how Adam Smith born just down the road in Kirkcaldy used to watch ships sail up and down the Firth and hence came to understand the importance of trade to the wealth of nations.
It is this coupling of collective obligations with a belief in the power of enterprise and markets that gives a clue to what Brown might do next. That, plus his deep commitment which I suspect he inherited from his parents to improving the lives of the poorest of the world, especially in Africa. All that means (as I once suggested in a column) that Brown would have been a great president of the World Bank. Perhaps he still could be. But if that job doesn't become free, how can he combine his interests and skills in ways that make a real contribution to the world?
Here's an idea. Let Brown and Blair, once close colleagues and friends, join forces to found a really great international nongovernmental organization the European equivalent of the Clinton Foundation dedicated to using all the mechanisms of the market and collective action to help those most in need. With his faith foundation and the Africa Governance Initiative, Blair is already showing what can be done with political star power (not that he gets much credit for it from the British media). But Brown has a reputation no less than Blair's in the developing world from his years as Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer. Together, the two could move mountains.
The chattering class of London's media and political village, of course, will say it can't be done that the two men now can't abide each other, that they would bicker as they did when in power. But who cares what they think in Westminster's watering holes? Time has a way of healing old enmities. Blair and Brown together with their remarkable wives may be out of politics, the profession to which they dedicated decades, but they still have a chance to do something great. Which would allow Brown, let us hope, to find some peace in forgetting that he ever wanted a job he should always have shunned.