Seven Ways to Change the World by Gordon Brown review – a restless search for answers

The question of how British prime ministers should and shouldn’t behave after leaving office has recently become a hot one. Property magnate and policy guru Tony Blair has refused to step out of the limelight, though at least shows enough self-knowledge as to understand that he will never be thanked for it. Theresa May has disappeared and cashed in, reportedly charging more than £100,000 for a speech: not bad for a woman who was said to read from a script during private one-to-one meetings. Y ahora, por supuesto, there is David Cameron, harassing civil servants during the darkest days of April 2020, begging them to throw his failing venture a bone, with reports that he personally stood to make £200m had Greensill Capital made it to flotation.

Por el contrario, Gordon Brown’s post-Westminster career has been a moral exemplar. He has surfaced to take a position in referendums – on Scottish independence and Brexi – but otherwise been largely invisible, focusing on charitable work, particularly on the expansion of education in the global south. While it addresses political questions of the greatest contemporary urgency, such as the management of the pandemic and the response to nationalism, Seven Ways to Change the World continues in the same spirit, offering a mixture of moral arguments and policy solutions that carefully avoids political controversy. He is silent on the questions of Scottish independence or Brexit, and the current prime minister (whose post-Westminster career hardly bears thinking about) earns not a single mention. Only Donald Trump, among recent political figures, is explicitly ostracised.

The title and format of the book follow a template that is familiar from a glut of self-help books, and which publishers presumably love. Brown has identified seven areas where greater international cooperation is required: global health, economic prosperity, climate change, educación, humanitarianism, abolishing tax havens and eliminating nuclear weapons. Each chapter offers a historical and moral diagnosis of the problem at hand, and a set of policies to alleviate it, all of which require states and their leaders to act in common with one another. The research is undeniably impressive in its scope and detail, though occasionally leaves you feeling bludgeoned by its sheer volume and unrelenting force, rather as Brown tended to leave audiences feeling after his speeches.

Brown’s forte as a politician was his combination of clear moral purpose with a mastery of technical minutiae, but which sometimes resulted in an air of bookish detachment. But on the page, some sentences – such as: “And we must reduce the differential between the education-poor and the education-rich by ensuring that the supply of highly educated people and thus the opportunities for social mobility rise, that more people move from low-paid jobs to higher-paid jobs and that … ” – simply reminded me of what Blair described as Brown’s “great clunking fist” at the dispatch box.

Given that the policy issues Brown is grappling with are, by their very nature, complex global ones, and that he has clearly engaged deeply and thoughtfully with them, I wasn’t entirely sure who his imagined readers were. Many of his interlocutors and sources are those elite-dominated global institutions: McKinsey, the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations. Then there are those campaigners and intellectuals who get a hearing in such institutions: Greta Thunberg, Steven Pinker, Bill Gates. Con demasiada frecuencia, Seven Ways to Change the World offers something like the view from Davos, not in an ideological sense but in its rarefied global reach, which purports to transcend every national, cultural, political and disciplinary divide. If the bosses of Goldman Sachs or the European Central Bank were to pick up a copy for their next long-haul flight, this would undoubtedly be welcome, but Brown presumably hoped to offer more than elite airport literature.

Where Brown differs from a regular Davos bore is that he clearly holds deep-seated moral views regarding the responsibilities of wealthy countries to less wealthy ones, combined with a sense that true justice (a word that recurs throughout the book) is never adequately achieved, but needs constantly pushing for. It was observed in the past that Brown’s intellectual and political project was to unite Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (an analysis of our natural psychological tendency to sympathise with others’ suffering) con The Wealth of Nations (the founding work of liberal political economy), books that had been too often read and taught in isolation from one another. Seven Ways to Change the World seems to bear this out, in being a call to match economic globalisation with adequate political coordination, so as to deliver on the moral responsibilities of the rich to the poor. Brown’s ability to move between economic and moral reasoning is a potent one, and more than a match for the kind of smug liberalism of Pinker (whom he engages in a brief tussle) or others proclaiming that contemporary capitalism is as good as it gets. “Most people would rightly regard as morally abhorrent the proposition that a child born into the poorest 20% of a population should face a risk of mortality twice as high as a child born into the richest 20%. Yet that is the reality of the world we now live in.” Such logic blasts its way through everything.

At times, when Brown reverts into political speech mode, the core thesis can seem banal: “But for me, the issue comes down to an inescapable choice – whether we manage globalisation well through our actions or badly through inaction.” The belief that global problems need global solutions is scarcely radical, though the book’s historic context – a global pandemic, the threat of nationalism and protectionism, cooling Sino-American relations, the glimmer of hope offered by the Biden presidency – does make it timely. There is perhaps a more nuanced thesis smuggled in concerning historical opportunities, though it’s not clear how much Brown intends it. The institutions that he seeks to build on and reform are largely legacies of 1945, when a global economic and humanitarian architecture was developed to prevent the catastrophic consequences of nationalism. But the other historical crisis he keeps returning to is the one that put him personally in the hot seat, and which briefly turned him into an international hero: the global financial crisis of 2008. While he clearly relishes the opportunity to roll out a few insider anecdotes from that time, the more interesting aspect is the sense of regret that he clearly feels for not having exploited the crisis more vigorously to push for international reforms, and for not being more aware of how damaging globalisation had already been. The subplot of Seven Ways is of a man looking back on his career, wishing he’d had it in him to make of 2008 what the allies made of 1945.

Late on in the book, Brown becomes possessed by this esprit de l’escalier. Reflecting on the final year of his premiership, as the political and financial vultures were circling in readiness for austerity, he expresses his regrets:

Labour has never really recovered from this moment, and British politics is now dominated by the nationalisms of England and Scotland. Does Brown feel somehow responsible for Brexit and the rise of Boris Johnson? Does he think the 2009 G20 summit in London or the climate change summit in Copenhagen were missed opportunities to avert President Trump or climate catastrophe? He doesn’t say. Seven Ways to Change the World is a blizzard of heady slogans, plans and statistics. But it also betrays a kind of vulnerability that “world leaders” rarely reveal, of a restless search for answers and reassurances, that continues long after one has lost the power to act on them. Brown’s moral keel was always constituted partly by self-doubt, or at least self-questioning. It’s a shame his successor lacks the same quality.

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