'To achieve things you sometimes make judgements you regret: Ben Fogle interviews Gordon Brown

Ben Fogle

From a chance encounter with the Prime Minister at a tiny Kent railway station to an intimate tour of No 10 Downing Street... Ben Fogle reveals how he was able to gain a remarkable insight into the world of Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown

'I don't think anyone could be as one-dimensional as the media make me out to be,' said Gordon Brown

I am sitting in a deserted No 10 Downing Street. It's 9am on Good Friday and it's eerily silent. I can hear the tick-tock of half a dozen clocks as I wait for the Prime Minister in this ghost house. It's much larger than I imagined, like Doctor Who's Tardis, opening up inside to reveal a vast inner world of leather sofas and rich upholstery. It has the air of a stately home or a gentleman's club. I expect Churchill to appear with a cigar.

Portraits of all the former Prime Ministers line the walls of the main staircase. Margaret Thatcher commented on a recent return visit that the only thing to have changed since her tenancy was the colour of the upholstery from red to green. A lone security guard stands by the door. He has a small CCTV screen hidden in an antique desk, with four images from the entrance cameras. I wonder why you're asked to knock if they can see you there in the first place.

'I'm afraid Gordon's decided to go for a run,' apologises the press officer. I thought it was only James Cracknell that made me feel guilty about missing the occasional morning run and now here I am being upstaged by our 59-year-old Prime Minister.

I fidget with my tie. I always feel awkward in a suit, but my wife insisted I dress appropriately: I had already made the mistake of arriving for my briefing in muddy jeans and Converse trainers. I had rather naively assumed the press office would occupy another building on Whitehall, only to find myself directed through the airport-style security at the gates of Downing Street and then pointed straight to the iconic door.

Gordon Brown

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'Just knock,' smiled a policeman, and I did - at the exact moment when Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson were leaving the weekly Cabinet meeting. Downing Street that day had the air of a battle station, buzzing with activity. I had been taken into the bowels of the building, to the basement where a small café offers sandwiches and cappuccinos on small round tables. Today it is a very different place. It is deserted.

Tick tock, tick tock. Tick tock, tick tock. Suddenly the Prime Minister comes striding down the corridor. He doesn't have the presence that some command on entering a room, but he does have an air of authority. He also looks a little tired and impatient. I ask about his early-morning run.

'I try to run every day,' he says. 'And for 20 years, I was running five miles a day. The security people are very good about it, because when I go out into the park there are often photographers looking for you. It's annoying because they get you at your worst moment - you know, tired, having sprinted, looking bedraggled.'

Sport turns out to be a good subject to begin on: as a child Brown enjoyed football, rugby, tennis and athletics. He ran in the Scottish schoolboy championships.

'Speed was my thing,' he smiles, '100 metres and 400 metres. I would have loved to have been a professional sportsman, but I was never as good as that.'

He cites as his inspiration Scots footballer Jim Baxter, who played for Raith Rovers, Brown's local team, 'although of course he got into great trouble - alcoholism got the worst of him'.

Brown rarely drinks himself. Interestingly, he also cites Maradona as a sporting hero. He must have an affinity with troubled battlers.

Brown is passionate about sport and loves watching rugby, but a childhood rugby injury curtailed his own competitive career. It was the Sixties, Brown was 16.

'It was the first two minutes of the game and I was caught in a loose scrum when someone kicked me in the head.'

On purpose?

'I don't think so, but we were a school team playing former pupils, and everyone was trying to assert how strong and powerful they were, and they probably decided to go for it in the first few minutes and give these young guys a shock. I got kicked unconscious, came around and just kept playing, because I didn't know anything was wrong at the time. Only gradually later on did my sight go - that's what happens with retinal detachment. It's a gradual loss of vision and when they finally operated on it, it was too late.

'I was very frightened,' he admits. 'I had to lie flat, without any pillows, blindfolded for days. Even after the operation I had to be blinded for a few days in the hope that the retina would settle in the right place. It didn't - and then what happened is it occurred in my second eye five years later. I was 21, playing tennis, and I just noticed that I had this blind spot and I couldn't play any more, so I immediately went to hospital.'

Gordon Brown

'I think The Sun newspaper was very unfair... It's very difficult to write these letters': Brown on criticism over claims he had misspelled the name of a deceased soldier in his condolence letter to the mother

Knowing that, if you lost the sight in that eye, you'd be blind?

'Yes, I did prepare myself for that. The surgeon who operated on me referred me to a specialist from Chicago - it was one of the first operations he'd done with this new technology. They put a silicone band around my eye and it's worked. There was some loss of peripheral vision, but not the central vision, so my sight's pretty good. But for all that period of time I thought, with one gone, the next eye's bound to follow. I was getting books sent to me from the Talking Book service. For three or four days, I was blind. It's not a good place to be. It's pretty grim... but I got through that. I think what it made me feel is that you've got to use your time more effectively.

'In your teens you think, "I could do anything. I've got plenty of time to make up my mind - I might be a lecturer, a writer or something..." but I thought, with this eye thing, my time might be limited. That's when I thought I might make better use of my life if I did something else.'

'If I've made a mistake, it's because I've made a mistake, not because I had the wrong motives'

At this point our photographer is invited to take his shot and we step outside No 10. The PM has an impressive ability to smile while he talks through clenched teeth. It is a rigid smile that suggests he has more important things on his mind, yet the reason I'm here is down to a chance encounter at a rural Kent railway station.

I was returning to London from an education seminar to catch a flight to Ethiopia. It was mid-afternoon and I found myself on a deserted platform. Suddenly half a dozen police and their dogs arrived. I had assumed they were waiting to board the train for a drugs bust, until Gordon Brown strolled onto the platform. It's a little strange when you first see someone in the flesh who is so familiar. I thought he looked smaller and thinner than I'd expected. He also looked a little weathered. Then one of his entourage approached me.

'Excuse me, Mr Fogle,' he said, 'the Prime Minister would like to meet you.'

Did the PM even know who I was? I was amazed.

He was knowledgeable, more charismatic than I expected and, dare I say it, charming. There was no sign of the one-dimensional, dour Scot I had so often read about. Accompanied by a dozen men and women in smart suits all glued to their BlackBerries, we shared a small carriage back to London. None of the passengers who joined along the way even noticed he was there.

Election Debate

The first ever election debate between the three main party leaders - the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg (far left), the Conservatives' David Cameron (centre) and Labour's Brown (right)

He had no time to prepare and yet he knew about my work campaigning for the creation of a South Downs National Park. He knew I had worked with Major Phil Packer at the Pride Of Britain awards and wanted to know about my work with injured soldiers. We talked a lot about Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time, Brown was being severely criticised in the press over claims he had misspelled the name of a deceased soldier in his condolence letter to the mother. He looked sad and beaten.

Now I ask him whether, having suffered his own personal loss when his daughter died just ten days old, those accusations were particularly hurtful?

'I think The Sun newspaper was very unfair,' he says. 'Emotionally it is one of the hardest things I have to do. You want to write a very personal letter explaining that you have tried to understand something about the life and achievement of that person you're commemorating, but you've also got to understand that you'll never understand all the facets of a young life lost in the service of the country. It's very difficult to write these letters. I don't like to write just two paragraphs. I like to write about what I know of that young person's achievements and what I know about the special qualities they brought to the job and what I know about the circumstances of their death.'

'Politics is just too divisive. Too confrontational. Too point-scoring'

As a former journalist himself, did the press's reaction surprise him?

'I don't think anyone could be as one-dimensional as the media make me out to be. If you make a mistake, you're accused of having some financial, personal or some psychological motive, and that's a problem we've got into with our journalism - the one-dimensional approach isn't strictly fair.'

Not only the press but numerous soldiers have criticised Brown for the conduct of both wars. As a keen supporter of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA), I was recently at Headley Court, where servicemen and women go for rehabilitation, and was horrified to see so many young men and women maimed and amputated from battle. I felt culpable, as a UK tax-paying citizen. How does the Prime Minister feel when he visits?

'You've always got to ask yourself whether you're doing the right thing. You can't just say, I made up my mind a year ago that this was the right thing to do. You have to say, today, is it the right thing to do?'

And is it?

'I believe it is. I see our servicemen's strength of determination, an unwillingness to feel sorry for themselves. Here are men who have suffered the most horrific injuries- IEDs (improvised explosive devices) have created a new form of terrorism in war - but after rehabilitation I found that all the guys I met had a forward-looking plan. Either they wanted to return to work in the armed forces or they had a plan for the future.'

Gordon Brown and Eddie Izzard

On the election campaign: Brown and comedian Eddie Izzard take part in a Q&A; session with students in Brighton last Friday

Has the loss of his baby daughter given him a better understanding of how to cope with bereavement?

'I think that with any parent who loses a son or a daughter at any age, there is a loss that can never be replaced.'

He thinks of his own daughter each time he writes a condolence letter, a reason he was so hurt by the accusations of insincerity and haste.

'All the time you come to terms with the fact your daughter or son's gone. That it is an irreplaceable loss that is always there with you. What's remarkable about so many of the people who have lost a loved one in Afghanistan is that they're now trying to form a foundation or a project in memory of the contribution their son or daughter made. That's one of the things that Sarah and I found was helpful. Because we'd lost someone we thought, this can not be in vain. You've got to do something and so Sarah formed a charity (Piggy Bank Kids).'

He leads me to a window in the White Room and points out: 'I can watch the Trooping of the Colour from here - and there's our little garden. Look, we even have a small vegetable patch.'

He says he loves to help Sarah and his boys, six-year-old John and Fraser, three, with the gardening. Does he use it in his cooking?

'Sarah uses it. I don't cook - do you?' I shake my head.

What does he do at the end of the day, then?

Gordon and Sarah Brown

'I think it is more difficult to be a parent now than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago': Gordon and wife Sarah have two sons

'I watch television,' he says. 'I don't watch the news and I don't follow any TV series - although I used to like Law And Order - but I love watching football and Sarah and I enjoy films. The last we watched were Invictus and Julie And Julia.'

I decide not to ask whether he's ever watched any of my programmes for fear of damaging my ego. Instead we talk about adventure. Having rowed the Atlantic and trekked across Antarctica, I thrive on risk and opportunity. I worry that children today aren't given the chance to experience the outdoors. He agrees.

'Of course we need more of that. We've got to be sure about safety - we've just had this accident two days ago when a bus got into trouble and one girl died - but I think the fact that my six-year-old has been offered an overnight stay in a nature environment is really good. I got these chances at school and others should get them too.'

As a new father myself, he warns me about parenthood.

'I think it is more difficult to be a parent now than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. The pressures that children are under are quite different from the pressures that we were under.

'We were influenced by our parents, our friends, our schools and perhaps our faiths... today it is the internet, mobile phones, computer games and texting. Parents have to do more to protect their children than ever before. Going onto the internet is like going in at the deep end of a swimming pool without proper safety and instruction. It's very easy for childhood to lose its innocence, and I don't want that to happen.'

I wonder how Brown fares in the deep end? Is he technologically savvy? Can he download music?

'I can do these things and I'm catching up with all the new technology,' he says, rather unconvincingly. I ask whether his sons ever help him.

'They are naturally adept with their ability to use a mouse, which I found quite hard to adapt to. I used to do two-finger typing and that was how my father used to type. So I never learned five-finger typing.'

Brown became a father at the height of his career, but he is at pains to point out that he gets to be with his family.

'One of the best things of my job is that you're living in the same place as you're working, so I see my children all the time.'

'I think that with any parent who loses a son or a daughter at any age, there is a loss that can never be replaced'

He recently admitted that his sons failed to see his role as PM as a real job and that young boys can bring chaos to No 10 - one of them recently walking in on a meeting with President Karzai of Afghanistan. The Brown boys seem to take world leaders for granted. Brown shows me a photograph of Nelson Mandela looking poised, with the Brown boys oblivious to his presence.

'My boys are looking at each other and don't recognise they are in the presence of Nelson Mandela. It's funny as he is sitting with great stature and they are sitting there without realising. It's one of those photographs they'll look at when they're ten years older and think, goodness, could I really have done that?'

By contrast, Brown was almost starstruck by Mandela.

'He's a very tall man and it's like a prince entering the room. When we met, he said, "Ah! The representative of the British Empire!" We had a great time and became good friends. I keep in touch with him. His wife's birthday is on the same day as John's birthday, and Fraser's is the day before his, so we exchange birthday cards.'

Affairs of state are, however, never far from the agenda. Was he humiliated by the financial crisis or the MPs' expenses scandal? I wonder how he faced his fellow heads of state afterwards.

'It was a stain on everyone and it diminishes our country - but every political system, in one decade or another, has gone through the same kind of trauma. It happened in America, France, Australia and Germany.' His tone is agitated.

Would he like his boys to follow him into politics?

'I would never try to persuade them to do something they didn't want to do. In any case, I think politics is moving to a more media age, and it's a very different kind of politics from when I started. If you're standing for a political job, you've got to answer the questions that people have.

'Politics is just too divisive. Too confrontational. Too point-scoring. I've been trying to have a debate in this country about assisted suicide and about embryology and what we've got to do to help develop cures for diseases. Having a debate on these is incredibly difficult, because people only see a political advantage.

'It's inevitable that celebrity is important in every walk of life. They want to know more about your character and everything else - but I think people are sensible enough to distinguish between the important things and the unimportant things. I don't think in the end it's important what kind of shoes I wear.'

So Sarah chooses your wardrobe?


I detect that I'm trying his patience and it's hard not to sympathise. I imagine Churchill and Gladstone turning in their graves at the prospect of being interviewed by someone like me or Piers Morgan. In many ways, Brown is from a different era of politics, pre-Blair, when policy was more important than personality. I get the feeling that he has struggled with the changes, where someone like David Cameron, perhaps, has not.

So what about life after politics?

'I'm not interested in any business or financial gain. I'd like to do charity or volunteer work.'

What about the speaker circuit?

'No, I'm not interested,' he insists.

It seems he plans nothing more than a return to Scotland. My grandfather came from Glasgow and I have spent a great deal of time there, so we discuss our love for the place and his face lights up: Scotland is where he feels truly free.

'Our house is on a hill overlooking the sea,' he smiles as he imagines the scene. 'We're just outside Edinburgh, overlooking the Forth rail bridge. The air is so fresh. All my father's family were farmers for 300 years and still are. My father was the first of his family to go to university before he became a Church of Scotland minister. I've got into this position by good fortune and hard work - but that doesn't stop me being an ordinary person.'

Does he have any regrets?

'Show me a soldier who's made no mistakes and I'll show you a soldier who's won no battles. To achieve things, you sometimes make judgements you regret, but nothing has been done from the wrong motives. If I've made a mistake, it's because I've made a mistake, not because I had the wrong motives.'

I believe him. This is not an unfeeling man - in fact, with the election now set for May 6, is one of his biggest regrets not calling an election in 2007?

'No, because we've had to deal with an economic crisis. I think we were the best people to deal with that and I think we need another period of time to rebuild and renew our economy and I think we're on the right path to do so.'

Maybe I'll ask him the question again on May 7. 

Ben Fogle picture byline: GILES PARK/SCOPEFEATURES.COM

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