At home with the Browns

Tesco magazine was offered a rare insight into the world of Britain’s most famous couple. In a politics-free chat, Prime Minister Gordon Brown tells Fiona Phillips how his mother shaped his future, how he and his wife, Sarah, work as a team – and why they’re proud to support our Mum of the Year awards

A mother’s influence lives on, it simply passes from generation to generation

They say that behind every great man is a great woman and that is certainly true of Gordon Brown. Of course we all know about the Prime Minister’s wife, Sarah, but there was also another very important woman in Mr Brown’s life – his mother, Elizabeth. Known to family as Bunty, Elizabeth worked as a military code breaker during World War II before marrying minister John Brown and raising three sons in Fife, Scotland.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, Gordon Brown tells us how his mum helped shape him into the man he is today – and how her influence lives on.

It’s Sunday morning and we’re in the flat above 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister’s home, like any family’s with two young children, is strewn with toys and decorated with his boys’ handiwork –
a robot made of loo rolls, lots of paintings and a star chart for good achievements on the fridge.

Fraser, three, the double of his dad, is entertaining us with a stream of chat about his Star Wars Lightsaber – my boys have one too, so I know what I’m talking about. John, six, Sarah’s double, is upstairs playing. We know because he shouts down, ‘Mum, can you help me with my Lego?’ Several times.

Mum, meanwhile is telling me how

Sarah and Gordon Brown

it’s not so bad the two boys having a dad who also happens to be Prime Minister. ‘He works from home a lot, so he gets to see the boys on and off during the day. We’re near John’s school too and he makes sure he goes to pick him up as often as he can,’ she tells me. Meanwhile a very relaxed Gordon offers a cuppa, as we sit and look through a treasured family photo album. He looks fondly at photographs of his mum and recounts how she made sure he kept his feet on the ground.

Fiona: I wanted to ask what was your mother like?

Gordon: She was very tall and very dignified. And she had wonderful hair, very thick, black hair. Sadly it went grey before she was 40, which she didn’t like. No one dyed their hair in those days, you just had to leave it grey.

Fiona: Your dad looks great in these photos, like some kind of a rock star. Those glasses are very trendy now.

Gordon: He might look trendy now, very Harry Potter-ish, but they weren’t trendy then!
That’s 1947.

Fiona: My mum was the driving force in my family, was yours?

Gordon: Yes, a mother, probably more than even a teacher, can recognise your talents and want you to make the most of them. I think my mother thought she hadn’t had all the chances she could have, because of the war, so she was adamant we should have the best chances possible. She was born the year World War I ended and was there as part of the World War II effort. She was the first person to come to London from our family to work. Then after the war she got married and had three sons.

She went to Buckingham Palace and she often used to tell me how everyone converged there after the end of the war was declared. I can just picture her in those crowd scenes. Then after the war she got married and had three sons, over a seven or eight year period. I remember when my younger brother Andrew was born, we were sent away for a few days and we came back and found this baby. Quite a shock for a five-year-old.

Audio clip: Gordon Brown about dignity

Fiona: Your parents were from different backgrounds and yet they
meshed so well.

Gordon: They seemed to get on pretty well – and I never saw them argue.

Fiona: That’s something of an achievement. I wish my boys could say that! When you were growing up your door was always open to anyone who needed help, wasn’t it?

Gordon: My mother was very kind. When people were ill she made food for them. In 1966 she almost died after her appendix burst. She was in hospital for months. It was a very difficult time, but that’s when we realised that none of us left at home could cook. The only thing my father could make was an omelette. So we ate very little else. And you could always tell if she was a bit disappointed in you, she didn’t need to say anything – you could just tell from her expression. And I think that’s what Sarah manages to do with the two boys. I’m not so successful at it.

Audio clip: Gordon Brown about his time in the hospital

Gordon: But I was lucky in the end that my sight was saved.

Fiona: That must have been down to your mum’s food at the time – enriched with vitamin A.

Gordon: She was a very good cook, which explains why we missed her when my father was in charge in the kitchen.

Fiona: I remember as a child looking forward to being ill because I’d get to have my mum’s home cooking, instead of the food at school.

Gordon: I know exactly what you mean. And my parents were determined we’d get all the best opportunities to find out what our talents were. We had music lessons, my aunt was a music teacher, and I can play the piano. Everybody’s got a talent and you’ve got to try and make the most of it. My mum taught me how to play tennis too.

Audio clip: Gordon Brown about his education

Fiona: I’ve lost my mum and you lost your mum in 2004. I don’t think life’s ever really the same once that happens, is it?

Gordon: Growing up, there’s so much that you accept that your mother does for you. She takes care of you and is always there behind the scenes, someone to fall back on. You don’t quite realise how much you depended on her until she’s not there. Your mother is so central to everything that you are, as well as what you do and how you behave, that it’s very difficult to contemplate life without her. Even when my mother was old and finding it difficult to do things, she was always there to talk to and always thinking about how her son was getting on. So when your mother dies it’s the end of an era. With her gone you feel a part of what you are has been taken from you too. But the good thing is that a mum’s influence lives on in you. It never goes, it simply passes from generation to generation.

Your mother
is central to everything that
you are and it’s very difficult to contemplate life without her

Gordon Brown serving tea Gordon Brown reading

A peek inside the Brown’s treasured family photograph album

Gordon Brown's family album

Gordon and Sarah with Elizabeth Brown on their wedding day; Elizabeth in her uniform during World War II; Gordon Brown as a primary school pupil in Fife

Fiona: Your mum wasn’t around to see you become Prime Minister but she did see you as Chancellor.

Gordon: Yes and I think that both she and my father were proud of that.

Fiona: Is there anything you wish you’d said to her before she died?

Gordon: When she was very ill I went up to Scotland to see her and we were able to talk to her about all the things that really mattered. And she saw our son John the day before she died and recognised him so that was very good. I think she probably knew she only had a short time left and I’d like to think she knew how much she meant to me.

Fiona: How much strength was she able to give you when your daughter Jennifer died?

Gordon: She was very old at that point, so it was very difficult for her, but she was very helpful to Sarah.

Fiona: Was she pleased when you and Sarah were finally married?

Gordon: I think so. Sarah and my mother got on incredibly well together.

Fiona: So she left you in safe hands.

Gordon: I think she felt that, yes.

Fiona: My mum always said she wished she’d had the same opportunities I did. Did your mother feel like that?

Gordon: Yes, I think so. My mum was very independent and liked to do things her own way. But her first interest was always her children and grandchildren and it was expected that she would get married, have children and stay at home. I think that’s where things have changed today. Although being a mum is still an incredibly difficult job. As a parent you have to be aware of anything that can influence your children and the way they’re brought up. And with things like the internet and video in a way it’s almost harder now than it used to be.

Fiona: What kind of mum is Sarah?

Gordon: Brilliant. Given all the things that we’ve got to do – and that we live in two places at once, Scotland and London – Sarah’s very adaptable. I can’t begin to say how proud and grateful I am because it just couldn’t happen without her. She gave up so much of her own career – I think my mother would certainly sympathise with her.

Fiona: And she’s involved in so many charities.

Gordon: Yes, I didn’t know just how much childbirth was a threat to mothers’ lives in some parts of the world until she said to me, ‘No one’s doing enough about this.’ There’s also the work she does for the Jennifer Brown Research Fund, named after our late daughter, through which we’re finding out lots more about complications that can arise during pregnancy and in the early days of a child’s life. And the more we find out about it, the more that not just children in Britain, but children and mothers around the world will be helped by that, so something good has come out of something that was really a terrible tragedy.

Fiona: And are you able to help Sarah?

Gordon: Would she say I help her? I hope so! We talk about a lot of things. And we like going to things together especially when there are real issues involved – we went to the G20 as a team and that worked well. These things are important and we’re a good partnership thanks to Sarah. When she spoke at the conference before introducing me on stage, it was one of the most moving of things for me.

Gordon shows Fiona some pictures

Audio clip: Gordon Brown about Nelson Mandela

[Sarah comes into the living room to offer Fiona and Gordon a cuppa]

Fiona: Sarah, are you close to your mother?

Sarah: I don’t know what I would do without my mum. She’s always been the woman I most wanted to grow up to be. She was an infant school head teacher and totally committed to giving kids the best start in life. Last year she completed a PhD in her seventies, so she’s living proof that Britain’s mums really can do anything.

Fiona: You’ve been coming to the Tesco magazine Mum of the Year Awards for the past couple of years now. Why are they important?

Sarah: Mothers don’t always get the credit they deserve and all the mums we see at these awards are truly awe-inspiring.
Gordon: Sarah’s shown me the winners’ stories, which are remarkable. They’re doing incredible things – helping others in difficult situations. It’s marvellous.

Gordon and Sarah Brown attended the Tesco magazine Mum of the Year event and presented an award to the overall winner for 2010, Jane Gates.

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