A disabled Pime Minister?

As Gordon Brown finally gets the top job in Westminster, Sunil Peck looks back at the key events that have shaped his life and career, including the rugby accident that left him partially-sighted, and asks whether his impairment will have any influence on his policies

July 2007

Last August, DN named Gordon Brown as the UK’s most influential  disabled person. Now, less than a year later, he is about to enter 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister.   But how much do we know about Gordon Brown? And will his first-hand experience of disability – he is visually-impaired and his son has cystic fibrosis – push disability issues further up the political agenda? A keen rugby player, Brown became partially-sighted at the age of 16 after he was kicked in the head during a match. He had three operations to try and save the vision in his left eye, and would later recall in an interview in The Guardian: “After each operation I’d have to lie in darkness for three maybe four weeks at a time.”  


 A university friend told Channel 4 News: “His time in hospital – I think it made him more reflective, maybe made him more impatient as well.” Brown himself would tell The Guardian: “One door closes, you can’t play rugby any more, so you concentrate on other things.”   Then, while playing tennis one day, he noticed that the sight in his right eye was deteriorating. But doctors were able to use a new surgical technique to prevent him from losing his sight completely.   After a fast-track education, he attended Edinburgh University at the age of 16. He immersed himself in student politics and became only the second student to be elected as the university’s rector.  He went on to work as a politics lecturer and a television journalist before entering parliament in 1983 and being appointed to the shadow cabinet in 1987. Like David Blunkett, Brown rarely speaks about his sight loss or the impact it has on his work. In fact, he has said he does not regard himself as disabled. Responding to the news that he had been voted the UK’s most influential disabled person in DN’s poll last year, his office said he was “a bit surprised to be nominated because he’s never really considered his eyesight to be a disability”.  This may explain why his office has turned down interview requests from DN.   Lord (Colin) Low, who has a visual impairment himself, suspects that Brown has not made more of his disability because it is not in his nature to make excuses or appeal for the “sympathy vote”.  


 But Lord Low concedes that Brown’s failure to talk about his impairment in public may have fuelled “negative publicity” from people who have criticised him for his awkward body language.   Sir Bert Massie, chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, says that “one of the great changes over the last 20 years is the ability of politicians to admit their sexuality without believing it will cost them their seats”.   “Maybe disability has not quite got to the point of disability pride in the way that gay pride has yet. Or it could simply be that people like Gordon believe that it is an irrelevance.”  

Some senior civil servants and ex-cabinet colleagues have portrayed Brown as someone who treats others with contempt.  But Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP for Aberdeen South, disagrees with the media image of Brown as a “dour Scotsman”. She bumps into him in parliament regularly and finds him “approachable” and “friendly”.  Sir Bert agrees that Brown has an unfair reputation for dourness. “He smiles very easily, he is very open and has got a pretty good sense of humour. You can’t go around with a grin on your face the whole time.”  Begg describes Brown as a “heavyweight politician who is passionate about football”.  In fact, he has been a big fan of Raith Rovers since he was 10 years old. In an interview with the football magazine Four Four Two, Brown said: “I used to sell programmes outside the ground with my older brother. We’d sell them before the match and at half-time we’d get in free.”  


 Brown has edited and written books on the Labour Party, but his latest book, Courage: Eight Portraits, looks at some of his heroes, including Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. He is a voracious reader too, and is said to love Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-based Inspector Rebus books.   Life peer Dame Jane Campbell is not convinced that Brown’s experience of disability will influence his policies. “I am sure direct experience as a partially-sighted man and having a child with cystic fibrosis must have some impression on his world view. Having said that, if we look at the record of disabled MPs in the House of Commons, they have not exactly been eager to display liberation disability politics, and whether they have any is pretty questionable.   “In the Upper House, there are a number of disabled people who are actively pursuing the disability agenda: Baroness Wilkins, Baroness Chapman, Lord Low and Lord Ashley are but a few of the many disabled people who have pushed the rights agenda forward. Wouldn’t it be good if Gordon Brown took his cue from them?”  Sir Bert is cautiously optimistic. “We have had disabled kings before,” he says. “We have undoubtedly had disabled Prime Ministers before, but what would be good is if there was an open acceptance that we had a Prime Minister with an impairment. But what is important is not the label that we add on to somebody. What is much more important is whether he chooses policies which serve our cause.”


Gordon Brown has been Chancellor of the Exchequer since May 1997.  He was set to become Prime Minister as DN went to press. He has been Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath since 2005 and was previously MP for Dunfermline East from 1983 to 2005.   He was educated at Kirkcaldy High School and Edinburgh University, where he gained a first class honours degree in history and a doctorate.   He lectured at Edinburgh University and at Caledonian University before working for Scottish TV.   He is married with two sons.

Disability Now


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