Gordon Brown: ‘We’ve got to give people a message of hope’

The former British prime minister spoke to Fintan O’Toole at the Irish Times Summer Nights Festival

Wednesday night's final Irish Times Summer Nights event is called Seven Ways to Change the World. It's named after the new book by special guest, former British prime minister Gordon Brown, and Fintan O'Toole is asking the questions.

He's pleased to be in Ireland, he says, even virtually. "I'm missing a holiday I would usually have in Kilkenny."

O'Toole first asks Brown, a veteran of a financial crisis, how he would tackle the current pandemic. By prioritising vaccinating the global population, he says. "The variants are expanding and unless we vaccinate the whole world the disease will come back in another form. We're in a race between the virus, it's variants and the vaccine itself… The G7 should have had a plan to vaccinate the world."

International cooperation is the big theme of the evening They discuss how the current wave of “illiberal nationalism” in the UK and elsewhere were ill-informed responses to inequities of globalism.

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But Brown believes that the big issues of the age – global health, inequality, tax avoidance and climate change – cannot be solved by countries acting alone. “In the 21st century national governments are showing themselves unable to deal with these issues so we’ve got to have better forms of international cooperation.”

O'Toole suggests the west might be on route to a new cold war with China. Brown stresses how important dialogue with China is, especially on issues of human rights (he alienated the Chinese leadership once by meeting with the Dalai Lama).

Even the previous cold war ended eventually, he says. “Every few hours this space station is passing over our head and it’s manned by Russian and American astronauts together…. Who would think you’d have these two countries cooperating in outer space and if you can do it in outer space we can do it on earth I think.”

On Boris Johnson he says, "I think you've got to remember that Mrs Thatcher was incredibly popular in 1987," he says, "and by 1990 she was out."

On his own position on Scottish independence, which he campaigned against, he says, “I’m a patriot who loves my country, its culture and history [but] I’m not a nationalist as Orwell described it which is a ideology of us versus them … I want to celebrate diversity but recognise that we can do better if we work together.”

On the UK government’s position on the Northern protocol, he touches on his own experience with Northern Irish politics. “You have to spend time and you’ve got to listen to people. I do feel that most of the issues in the protocol could be resolved … I think there’s enough people who want things to move forward to make progress.”

O'Toole asks Brown if the Iraq war was part of how people lost trust in government. He agrees that it was. "We were misled, and we were misled by people in the American administration who did know better. It's not that we were misinformed; we were misled … The information we were given was very clear that there were these weapons … You cannot say now, looking in retrospect that everything possible was done to avoid war because basically he did not have the weapons of mass destruction."

O’Toole asks how Brown has retained his political optimism. Brown quotes Solzhenitsyn on how even in hearts overwhelmed a “bridgehead of good is retained”.

"I think we've seen a lot of goodness in this crisis and I also see young people – I have teenage sons – far more optimistic in the future." He evokes the climate change movement, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. "We've got to give people a message of hope. Tell them about the dream."

The Irish Times Summer Nights Festival, sponsored by Peugeot, is a series of online talks featuring Irish Times journalists in conversation with local and international authorities. It runs until Thursday July 1st. Still to come in the festival are: Roddy Doyle talking to Fintan O'Toole; Mona Eltahawy with Róisín Ingle; and Jo Spain in conversation with Bernice Harrison. A ticket covering all events costs €50, or €25 for Irish Times subscribers. Full schedule and tickets from irishtimes.com/summernights.