Back for a second slice of the brilliant Borders Book Festival 2018, this time to hear former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, speak. He has just published a memoir called ‘My Life, Our Times’, around which much of the discussion was based, but afterwards he happily took questions from the audience on a variety of topics.
As I said in my recent post about Lord Paddy Ashdown, it’s difficult to know what to expect from a former politician. As I recall, Gordon Brown had a reputation for being somewhat cantankerous when in office (a fact that he would acknowledge in this session), yet today he came across as warm and far wittier than I’d expected.
Also unexpected was the address to the audience with which Gordon began the session. For a good 15 minutes, minus notes, he chatted amiably to us about his family, growing up as the son of a Church of Scotland minister and how he came to enter politics. Some of what Gordon said was reflective (his concern at the rise of isolationist/populist parties across Europe and America) and some downright funny, including a peach of an anecdote about Silvio Berlusconi bemoaning the lack of a make-up artist at a live TV debate, whilst trying to persuade Naomi Campbell to give him her telephone number.
In politics, Gordon says, you need a vision but you also need to communicate it. Your timing needs to be right, too. Not only did Gordon never expect to become Chancellor or Prime Minister, politics is far more about image than he realised and his naivety in this respect let to bad run-ins with the press, particularly Rupert Murdoch.
Acknowledging that he was never a “touchy-feely” politician, Gordon explained that, growing up in a manse, he learned to hide his feelings although his parents did encourage him to be kind to everyone. Cue another amusing anecdote about how, aged ten years old, he invited someone he believed was homeless round for dinner while his parents were out, only to discover later that he had invited the area’s most notorious burglar into their home.
Wrapping up his address, Gordon concluded that he still believes in the policies he implemented, but admitted, ruefully, that he “couldn’t get his message across”. This despite the advent of social media; acknowledging that other politicians have found it useful, Gordon describes it as like “fighting without a referee”.
It was time for the audience to ask questions and the first one packed a real punch. “PFI may have led to lots of hospitals being built”, began a stern lady in the front row, “but is it like HP? Is the country now up to its eyes in debt?” Not in the slightest, responded an unruffled Gordon. When Labour came to power in 1997 the NHS was in a very bad state, suffering from staff shortages, long waiting lists and hospitals in disrepair. As Chancellor, he was able to raise some money through additional NI contributions, but it was through private finance that sufficient funds were raised for significant NHS investment.
Now, however, continued Gordon, things are changing again. People are living longer and much more social care will be needed going forward. The financing of the NHS has to be looked at again.
Which contemporary politicians does he admire? “Emmanuel Macron”, Gordon immediately responded – adding that he has met the French president several times and that he has much respect for Macron’s vision. Not only is he trying to move France forward, he is a “phenomenon” who has managed to break the country political party system and weaken the National Front. “We won’t like everything he does”, Gordon concluded, “but he is an impressive politician”.
To our surprise, Gordon went on to talk about George W Bush in more favourable terms than might have been expected. “Bush had a reputation as a non-communicator”, he mused, “but that wasn’t my personal experience”. Sensing some disbelief amongst the audience he added, “Unlike other presidents, Bush always returned my calls within an hour; I might not have agreed with all of George’s policies, but I worked well with him. And he has a far better understanding of history and politics than he is given credit for”.
The same can’t be said, alas, about Vladimir Putin. After dryly recounting an anecdote about visiting Putin in Moscow and placed in a seat where he physically had to look up towards the diminutive Russian president, Gordon told us, “After the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, our relations with Russia could never be good. We knew that Putin was behind it – and that he was attempting other assassinations; we had to keep people under surveillance for their own protection”. Asked whether Putin was behind the recent attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, Gordon confirmed, “There’s a definite pattern. This is a new type of terrorism and we’re dealing with a totalitarian government who we have to confront.”
Gulp. A somewhat chilling way in which to end an interview, I’m sure you will agree. So I will wrap up this post by saying that, if Gordon’s memoir is anywhere near as interesting as the 60 minutes I spent with him today, it will be a very good read indeed. Plus, all profits are going to charity…now that really is a positive way in which to end this post.