Born in Glasgow, Brown studied history at the University of Edinburgh. Even before entering Parliament Brown had achieved some renown, being elected Rector of Edinburgh University whilst still a student there, and editing The Red Paper on Scotland. He worked as a lecturer and journalist while completing his PhD. He has also written a biography of the Independent Labour Party politician James Maxton.
He was elected to Parliament in 1983, becoming opposition spokesman on Trade and Industry in 1985, then Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary before becoming Shadow Chancellor in 1992.
After the sudden death of John Smith, Brown was tipped as a potential party leader, but he stepped aside and allowed Tony Blair to become leader. It has long been rumoured that a deal was struck between the two men at the Granita restaurant in Islington, and that Blair promised to retire at some future date, allowing Brown to become Prime Minister. Whether this is true or not, the relationship between Blair and Brown has been central to the fortunes of "New Labour", and they have by and large remained united in public despite reported rifts.
As Shadow Chancellor, Brown worked hard to establish an image of fiscal competence, and to reassure business and the middle class that Labour could be trusted to run the economy without fuelling inflation. "Prudence" became Brown's catchphrase, and he cultivated a dour and even miserly air, though he is apparently known to friends and constituents as a good-humoured and romantic man. He also committed Labour to following the Conservatives' spending plans for the first two years after taking power.
On taking office as Chancellor, Brown sprung a surprise by giving the Bank of England responsibility for setting its base rate of interest, and thus control over monetary policy. On fiscal matters, he is regarded as having an unusually strong influence over the details of the government's spending plans. While he has adhered to Labour's election pledge to make no increases to the standard or higher rates of income tax, the conjunction of his decisions to align the national insurance threshold with the income tax threshold and then increase the national insurance rate without regard to the upper earnings limit by one percentage point has had substantially the same effect except for investment income and pensions in payment. This action, together with the increase in the tax share of national income on a cyclically adjusted basis, accounts for the recurrent accusations that Brown has faced of imposing "stealth taxes".
He is widely viewed as less enthusiastically pro-euro than most in the Blair administration, and apparent rifts have occurred between him and more europhile members of Cabinet (such as Peter Hain and Jack Straw).
On December 28, 2001, a daughter Jennifer Jane was born prematurely to Brown and his wife Sarah. Jennifer Jane died January 8, 2002. Their second child, a son, was born on October 17, 2003.