Gordon Brown: 'I feared I would go blind when I was prime minister'

Gordon Brown has revealed how he feared he would lose his eyesight completely when he was prime minister.

The Labour politician, who has been blind in one eye since he was a teenager, tore a retina in the other eye during his third year at Number 10, Downing Street.

In a new memoir, he revealed that he didn’t tell any of his colleagues and tried to perform his cabinet duties despite not being able to see properly.

Mr Brown had been left blind in one eye after a blow to the head in a rugby match when he was a teenager.

In an extract from his memoir, My Life, Our Time, he describes how in Number 10, four decades on, he suffered a sudden deterioration in his good eye.

“When I woke up in Downing Street one Monday in September (2009), I knew something was very wrong. My vision was foggy,” he writes.

Gordon Brown speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton in September 2009 (Picture: Rex)
Gordon Brown speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton in September 2009 (Picture: Rex)

“That morning, I was to visit the City Academy in Hackney to speak about our education reform agenda.

“I kept the engagement, doing all I could to disguise the fact that I could see very little – discarding the prepared notes and speaking extemporaneously.”

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As soon as the event was over, Mr Brown was driven to the consulting room of a prominent surgeon at the Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.

“To my shock, in examining my right eye, he discovered that the retina was torn in two places and said that an operation was urgently needed. He generously agreed to operate that Sunday,” he writes.

On his way out, Mr Brown asked if an old friend, Hector Chawla, who had treated him in the past, could be invited to give a second opinion.

He saw him the day the operation was due to take place.

“I was already prepared for surgery when he examined me and said he was convinced that the tears had not happened in the past few days. They were not new but longstanding,” Mr Brown writes.

“His advice was blunt. There was no point in operating unless the sight deteriorated further. Laser surgery in my case was more of a risk than it was worth.”

Mr Brown is blind in one eye from a rugby accident in his teens (Picture: PA)
Mr Brown is blind in one eye from a rugby accident in his teens (Picture: PA)

Mr Brown said he feels “lucky beyond words” that the retina has continued to hold.

“Even if I felt fate had dealt me a hand I would not have chosen, my time in and out of hospital – and the fight for my eyesight -gave me a perspective that I still feel helps me to be more understanding of difficulties facing others in a far worse position than me,” he writes.

Mr Brown also uses his memoir, published on November 7, to describe his struggles to communicate with voters in the era of “touchy feely” politics and social media.

He acknowledges he had not been “an ideal fit” in an age which put personal politics to the fore.

However, he says that while he may have been seen by some as being remote or aloof, what mattered to him throughout was “what our government could do for our country”.

Mr Brown admits his “biggest regret” as prime minister was his failure to convince voters to back his vision of progressive politics following the global financial crash of 2008.

Throughout his time in No 10, Mr Brown was criticised for being dour and awkward in public – factors widely seen to have contributed to his general election defeat in 2010.

In the book, he describes growing up in an era where “reticence was the rule” and politicians were considered “self-absorbed and even out of touch” if they were “constantly self-referential in public”.

It left him, he says, uncomfortable about being “conspicuously demonstrative” – one of the reasons why it took him so long to write his memoir.

“During my time as an MP I never mastered the capacity to leave a good impression or sculpt my public image in 140 characters,” he writes.

“In a far more touchy-feely era, our leaders speak of public issues in intensely personal ways and assume they can win votes simply by telling their electors that they ‘feel their pain’.

“I fully understand that in a media-conscious age every politician has to lighten up to get a message across and I accept that, in the second decade of the 21st century, a sense of personal reserve can limit the appeal and rapport of a leader.

“I am not, I hope, remote, offhand or uncommunicative. But if I wasn’t an ideal fit for an age when the personal side of politics had come to the fore, I hope people will come to understand this was not an aloofness or detachment or, I hope, insensitivity or a lack of emotional intelligence on my part.”

(Main picture: PA)