May 20, 2006


From a Modest Scottish Town To Downing Street's Doorstep (Kevin Sullivan, 5/20/06, Washington Post)

As the top job seems closer to his grasp, the 55-year-old [Gordon] Brown has begun a stylistic makeover, appearing now and again without a tie, wearing the occasional pastel-colored sweater and seeming to comb his uncooperative hair more often. But that has done little to answer doubts about what kind of leader he would be. Many people here say they know what is in Brown's head but not what is in his heart.

"The biggest question right now in British politics is how the country is going to take to Brown as prime minister," said Michael Howard, former leader of the Conservative Party, Labor's main opposition.

If Blair steps aside, Labor would choose a new prime minister to run the country until the next general election, which must be held no later than 2010. It almost surely will be Brown, though no one rules out the possibility of a challenge from within. Home Secretary John Reid has been mentioned in British political circles as a possible alternative.

The party's likely opponent in that election will be the Conservative leader David Cameron, 39, who, as if to underscore Brown's style vacuum, appears on the June cover of the British edition of GQ magazine wearing a sleek suit.

To understand Brown, his friends say, it helps to visit Kirkcaldy, where he was raised and where he is still known simply as "Gordon." Brown represents the town in Parliament, and he owns a lovely brick house just down the road, to which he, his wife and young son make the five-hour train ride from London to spend most weekends.

Kirkcaldy, pronounced "Ker-cawdy," is a waterfront town of 50,000 that exudes Brown's rough charm. It is a working-class place, proud but not too full of itself, where stores on the main street sell expensive French wine and iPods alongside a shop called Spike's that sells live bait.

For decades the town survived on a pair of coal mines and a huge linoleum factory, but they're long gone. Teachers at Kirkcaldy High School, which claims Brown as its second-most-famous alumnus after economist Adam Smith, said many children are from families dogged by unemployment that has persisted since their grandfathers were laid off from the mines.

Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve and a friend and adviser of Brown's, accepted Brown's invitation to give a speech here last year. He quipped that any town that produced both Smith and Brown must have some kind of "subliminal intellect-enhancing emanations."

Brown is the middle son of the late John Brown, a Presbyterian minister, and his "whole philosophy in life is based on his father's beliefs," said Peter Livingstone, who met Brown when they were 11.

Judith Kerr, a classmate of Brown's who teaches at the high school, recalled John Brown as a powerful presence in a black robe. He was an "austere" man who taught thrift and prudence, social justice, and charity for the less fortunate, Kerr said.

"I learned from my mother and father that for every opportunity there was an obligation, for every demand a duty, for every chance given, a contribution to be made," Brown said in a speech last year. In interviews, he has recalled learning those lessons living in a preacher's home where the door was open to anyone at any hour.

Livingstone recalled that when he and Brown were about 14, Brown ran as a Labor Party candidate -- and won -- in a mock election in which he stressed his father's theme of social responsibility. "I was amazed by his passion, even at that age," he said.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 20, 2006 8:10 AM

Everyone knows that the cool town in Fife to be from is Kingsbarns, sheesh. (Not the my family is from there or anything . . .)

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 20, 2006 11:28 AM

Doesn't the UK have a match for Harper & Howard? A conservagtive with a six letter name beginning with "H"?

Posted by: erp at May 20, 2006 1:55 PM