In their continuing series of speakers this semester, Topping and Company invited former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the event “An Evening with Gordon Brown” to present his newly written autobiography, My Life, Our Times. Raisa Muhtar discusses the event.
Roger Cohen of The New York Times remarked in 2007 that former Prime Minister Tony Blair “stood, without equivocation, on the right side of history. Where Brown stands on most things remains a mystery.”
Perhaps a mystery it will no longer be, as at the Holy Trinity Church in St Andrews, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown came to speak at an event hosted by Topping and Company to promote and launch his newly published autobiography, My Life, Our Times in which he shares a highly personal account of his life in politics and beyond.
The cold winter night did not stop people from attending the event, many of whom clutched his hardback autobiography, and the seats were quickly filled within five to 10 minutes of the doors opening.
Regarding his book, Mr Brown noted that he hoped he did not come across as “remote, offhand and uncommunicative… aloof and detached,” something he was often accused off by the public as he was “emerging from the shadow of [his more] charismatic partner,” Tony Blair.
If he once felt that reticence was the rule, he does not seem to feel this way anymore. He sported a red Poppy in anticipation of Remembrance Sunday, cracking jokes and smiling joyfully as he spoke of his earliest experiences reading history as a student at the University of Edinburgh, then arriving at Westminster first as Member of Parliament (MP) for Dunfermline East and later for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath from 1983 to 2015. Rising through the ranks, he then served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Blair Government from 1997 to 2007 before landing the position of Prime Minister of and Leader of the Labour Party from 2007 to 2010. In total, he served the government for 13 years, and yet his now dominant English accent developed during this period still gave way to the occasional Scottish “wee.” He told glamorous stories of himself helping Nelson Mandela sneak sips of champagne past the watchful eyes of his wife in celebration of his 90th birthday; being surrounded by celebrities at fundraisers as he watched Oprah and Elton John outbid each other for a painting, and deciding between paintings to present to the then-President of the United States Barack Obama from the Government’s Art Collection in keeping with the tradition of diplomatic gift giving between the two nations.
Glamour aside, he also spoke of more pressing issues. He reflected upon the times when it was right to act, such as when he made the Bank of England independent in his first days in government in 1997; introduced tax credits to address pensioner poverty in 1999; refining the NHD with the biggest single tax raise in history in 2012. He also reflected on times when he felt it was right to step back, for instance in 2003, when he rejected the Euro and in 2007, decided to exit Iraq.
He reflects on the effects of the internet and how that has affected the way people conduct politics in Britain and the world. “I was born about 40 years before the World Wide Web and arrived in Parliament 20 years before the advent of Twitter,” he said. Alluding to the behaviour of modern politicians like President Trump, he said, “During my time as an MP I never mastered the capacity to leave a good impression or sculpt my public image in 140 characters. Indeed, I met Lady Thatcher on a number of occasions, and the idea that she could contain her thoughts in 140 characters is preposterous! The Lady was not for tweeting. But I should have been.”
Never having been known as a “touchy-feely” man, he now reflects that his holding back from being “conspicuously demonstrative” may now be a barrier to politics. “Perhaps it took me too long to understand fully an essential dimension of leadership: that any idea, big or small, is of little significance until it can be communicated compellingly and in clear terms.
This weakest link was what he found most challenging when managing the global recession in the midst of the financial crisis in 2009. On top of having to deal with states like as France, Germany, and China, who did not want to be held responsible for a crisis they did not cause, the progressive policies he pushed for were ill-received. “Like most politicians, I cannot claim to have always seen the writing on the wall, the good or bad. I fell short in communicating my ideas. I failed to rally the nation around the necessary fiscal stimulus and my plans for radical change,” he said.
Despite everything, he managed to succeed in ushering the biggest peacetime fiscal stimulus Britain has ever seen. “There was unprecedented co-operation worldwide in a plan for recovery,” where “growth quickly returned, unemployment started to fall and people’s savings were secured.”
However, with all that was accomplished, his biggest regret still remained. He said, “We won the battle – to escape recession; but we lost the war – to build something better. Taming globalisation – and redirecting it to meet the interests of working people – has been, and still is, the defining political challenge of our era.”
If there is ever one thing clear about Mr Brown, it’s that he stands on the grounds of the ever-hopeful. Perhaps this stems from his deep admiration for Nelson Mandela and his leadership in leading South Africa to a more peaceful, tolerant, and post-apartheid future. He said, “Ideas as big as Mandela’s are, of course, few and far between, but lesser ideas can still move the dial, shift the pace, often via incremental, unsensational steps, and transform our view of what’s possible.”
Call it idealism if you will, but in these tumultuous and divided times, perhaps idealism is just what the British people need. It’s what brought Mr Brown into politics in the first place, in what he continues to believe is, “the art of the possible.”
With all that has been said and done, as former Prime Minister, Mr Brown comes back full circle to the Fife he grew up in, with grace, cheer, and humility. He indeed stands, and remains standing, on the right side of history. May he return to Fife sometime soon, with more valuable insights.
For those interested in more speaker events with Topping and Company, visit their website at https://www.toppingbooks.co.uk/events/st-andrews/ .