Gordon Brown is leaving British politics in much the same way as he conducted himself throughout his long and distinguished career: with a gigantic chip on his shoulder. This much is made clear in a delightful, funny and insightful diary of the two-year Scottish referendum campaign by the journalist Alan Cochrane, Alex Salmond: My Part in His Downfall (Biteback, £18.99).
Cochrane, Scottish editor of the Telegraph, had what he calls “an astonishing meeting” with Brown after meeting him in the lounge of the Sheraton Hotel, Edinburgh last May. The former Prime Minister started questioning Cochrane about his background, then revealed that in his teens he had been offered a place at Oxford but chose instead to go to Edinburgh (where incidentally he had a stellar career, culminating in being elected Rector while still a student).
Cochrane reports him as continuing: “I wish now that I had gone [to Oxford]. I think I missed something by not going.” Cochrane, presumably stunned by this revelation, replied that Brown hadn’t done badly — “Prime Minister and all.”
But could Brown’s memory be playing him tricks? I recall that when I was applying for university only a couple of years earlier it was a rule of UCCA (now UCAS), the university admissions body, that if you applied to Oxford or Cambridge, you had to accept their offer if they made one. So if he first applied to Oxford, how did Brown end up at Edinburgh?
And it makes it all the harder to understand why he made such a fuss back in 2000 over the case of Laura Spence, the Tyneside comprehensive schoolgirl with a fine academic record who applied to study medicine at Magdalen College, Oxford, but was turned down. The college explained that it had received applications from 22 equally well-qualified students and could only accept five, but to no avail. Brown, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer — and, one might think, above such things — took it on himself to launch a damaging attack on Magdalen and Oxford, calling Spence’s rejection “an absolute scandal” and accusing the university of “elitism” and operating “an old establishment interview system”. Now he claims that this appalling system had actually offered him a place but he chose to turn it down.
Perhaps Brown, who was Chancellor for ten years and Prime Minister for two and a half, should look to Laura Spence as an example of how to deal with a major setback while young. Instead of Oxford, she went to Harvard to study biological sciences, before going on to Wolfson College, Cambridge, to study medicine, graduating with distinction in 2008. And at no stage did she ever complain of “missing out”.