From a Modest Scottish Town To Downing Street's Doorstep

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, right, will likely succeed Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, right, will likely succeed Prime Minister Tony Blair. (Associated Press)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 20, 2006

KIRKCALDY, Scotland -- On the blustery shores of the Firth of Forth in the Kingdom of Fife, where Scots have a way with words, nurse Karen Tod considered Gordon Brown, this town's native son and Britain's probable next prime minister.

"It's like he just fell out of bed and went to work, but he's a nice man," said Tod, 31, sizing up Brown's famously rumpled appearance, compared with the stylish flash of his partner and rival, Prime Minister Tony Blair.

With scandals popping all around him and Blair's popularity ratings diving off the cliff of the Iraq war, the day when Blair fulfills his promise to step aside for his presumed successor could arrive much sooner than later -- maybe in two years, maybe next year, maybe tomorrow.

When it does, 10 Downing Street may well have an occupant who is something of a mystery to the British public. Brown has effectively been prime minister-in-waiting since he and Blair led the Labor Party to power in 1997. He is modern Britain's longest-serving chancellor of the exchequer and has run government financial policy with discipline and general success.

While Blair has built a career on charisma, empathy and an ability to rally the British heartland, Brown has built his by being a brooding policy wonk.

As the top job seems closer to his grasp, the 55-year-old 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.

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