[AI] A disabled Prime Minister?

Vikas Kapoor dl.vikas at gmail.com
Sun Jul 1 08:18:16 EDT 2007

A disabled Prime 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

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

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

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.

Vikas Kapoor,
MSN+Yahoo+Skype ID: dl_vikas,
Mobile: (+91) 9891098137.

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