Image: Wikimedia Commons
It’s not every day you receive an email asking if you “want to see Gordon Brown in two days’ time?” Last Tuesday I received exactly this, inviting me to a talk by former Labour Prime Minister, Chancellor, and all-round economic guru Gordon Brown, calling for a vote to Remain in the European Union in the upcoming referendum.
Despite my rather poor attendance at Warwick Labour events (I recently claimed to represent the ‘Labour Party Leadership-in-Exile’ on a radio broadcast), I couldn’t resist the chance to see a former Prime Minister and ten-year Chancellor, even if the 9:30 start time made me wince. As a student rather more used to rising three hours after noon than before, I had some doubts about my ability to enforce a pre-2am bedtime, as well as avoid drinking too much the night before.
Sure enough, however, my application for a seat was successful, and in a display of self-discipline and dedication that would no doubt have impressed Mr Brown himself, I arrived at the International Digital Lab at 8:50, to await his arrival. Greeting me were a selection of pastries and-most crucially of all-coffee. Having restored myself to some state of humanity, I set myself down in my seat, and talked Labour politics for a while, until Gordon Brown arrived, flanked by Labour In for Britain chairman Alan Johnson (Labour’s greatest leader who never was) and regional co-ordinator Emma Reynolds MP. After introductions and thanks by Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft, Johnson, and Reynolds, it was time for the man himself to take the stage.
When telling friends and social media contacts I was going to see Gordon Brown speak, I received comments like “charismatic one, him”, and sage advice like “can’t you say you’re ill?” and “bring a book”.
These naysayers were quickly proved wrong when Gordon Brown began to speak. I count myself as one of a vanguard of genuine Gordon Brown fans, who feel he got a bad rap as Prime Minister due to a combination of circumstances and the ills of Tony Blair’s legacy combining to make his stay in Number 10 an unhappy one, and even I was surprised by what an engaging speaker Mr Brown is. In equal parts warm, humorous, informed and charismatic, he delivered a tour de force in support of the EU, and specifically British involvement in the EU. Alan Johnson emphasised that Brown was speaking without notes, and comparison with his speech the previous day confirmed this was true. Every statistic was from memory, each soundbite was constructed on the day, and each emotional appeal came from the heart.
Brown talked about the positive impact on the local area of EU investment, pointing to the thriving car industry in the Midlands, as well as the impact of the common market. He attacked the Leave campaign’s assertions that Britain could trade with the rest of the world, pointing out that almost 50 percent of UK exports go to the European Union. He noted that the only international statesman supporting Brexit was Donald Trump, a man who “had lost the art of communication, but sadly not the power of speech”, and concluded with a powerful reminder than the 21st century has been the only century so far without war in Europe. Brown’s main emphasis was “Leading Not Leaving”, incidentally the title of the book he signed after the talk, and he suggested that British involvement in the EU was almost as important as EU involvement with Britain. When questioned in the aftermath about his own reluctance for Britain to join the Euro, he freely acknowledged the right balance must be struck between “the autonomy we desire and the co-operation we need”, and pointed out that Britain can only ensure it gets a good deal from inside the EU, rather than “carping from outside”, to borrow a term Baroness Burt recently used.
After the speech, he signed copies of his book, and I realised I was about to interact with Gordon Brown. Speak to him. Have him write my name. My heartbeat quickened as I saw him shaking the hand of some who came to him. When my turn came, I half began to extend my hand, hoping against hope he would deem me worthy.
It was not to be.
On realising he had no intention of offering a handshake, I saved myself by running my hand through my hair. I still attempted engagement, by asking if he was secretly funding a re-election bid.
Well… I might not have been able to shake his hand, I reflected as I walked out, having been thoroughly entertained and engaged by Gordon Brown, but at least I was a political journalist, for five seconds at least.