Gordon Brown on Education

Four years out of government seem to have done former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown a lot of good; relieved of his characteristic dour demeanour, the “son of the manse” occupied the pulpit of St John’s Episcopal Church in Pittenweem with the comfortable charm and rhetoric of an accomplished politician. More humanitarian than political, the talk rang of the aspirations and good will which drew people to New Labour nearly twenty years ago, before the Iraq war, terror laws and economic recession sealed the Blair-Brown duo’s political demise.

Image courtesy of Rose Butters, © 2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Anne Marie Smout, © 2013, some rights reserved.

As part of the East Neuk Debate series, the talk was organised by St Andrews Professor Emeritus Chistopher Smout, who is currently Historiographer Royal in Scotland. Having been Reader at Edinburgh University while Gordon Brown was there in the late 1960s and 1970s, Prof. Smout and Mr Brown have a history of intellectual appreciation and friendship, the former visiting the latter while fighting for his sight after the retinal detachment he received during a rugby match. While their personal relationship no doubt helped bring about the debate, Mr Brown’s interest and work in Africa is both long-standing and relevant today, a passion which made his appeal all the more effective.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, at as young as eleven, Gordon Brown was writing articles for his older brother James’ publication The Gazette which at the time was Scotland’s only magazine whose proceeds went to Africa. From these early endeavours Mr Brown’s charitable involvement continued with his wife Sarah Brown’s UK charity, PiggyBankKids, created to give underprivileged children access to education and which recently evolved into its global successor, Theirworld. Since leaving Downing Street, Mr Brown has raised millions for charity, reportedly donating all of the £1.37million he earned from speeches in 2012-13 and taking up the cause of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl targeted by the Taliban for her education and women’s rights activism.

The trigger for this particular campaign was the realisation that the United Nations millennium development target of providing all children with primary school education by 2015 is unlikely to be achieved; although it could be seen as an unattainable goal, Mr Brown’s main concern is that progress is actually decelerating, causing a “hidden and silent emergency in education”. This gave him the impetus to try and raise $3-4 million annually for Theirworld projects ‘A World at School’ and ‘Global Business Coalition for Education’ in order to give some of the 57 million primary school age children currently out of school an opportunity to learn.

At Pittenweem last Thursday, aside from heartrending stories from Mr Brown’s work in Africa and jokes about the distasteful nature of politics, there were several points of note throughout the debate. Firstly, unlike campaigns such Comic Relief and G8 whose focus is on Africa, Mr Brown’s work includes aid for Asian countries like Thailand highlighting a more worldwide need for aid after years of focus on Africa.

Secondly, Brown’s focus on education was challenged with questions about the dangers of corruption or ‘brain drain’ and whether schooling should be prioritised over basic healthcare provisions. His answer to all three was succinctly, optimistically but in my opinion correctly, that ‘education’ was the solution. Better-educated officials could lead to more transparent and efficient bureaucracies as an eventually wealthier state which would both limit the opportunities for and temptations of corrupt practice. A better economy could not only be achieved by a more educated population but would provide better opportunities for those bright nationals who would otherwise be tempted to emigrate; at this point Mr Brown avoided broaching the issue of UK immigration after it had been such an incendiary topic under his tenure.

Perhaps his most powerful point here was that the benefits of education are not limited to those who aspire to ‘white collar’ jobs: he reminded us that better education would have a complementary effect on public health by pointing out that an educated African woman is both more likely to survive childbirth and avoid contracting HIV.

A final aspect of note was the emphasis Mr Brown put on governmental contributions over entrepreneurial or personal ones. Obviously his rhetoric was geared to persuade us, the public, of the value of his cause, but he highlighted donations secured from the Norwegian and US governments and the issue of inter-governmental cooperation. I can only speculate that this focus derives from his Labour and Christian background, as a combination of useful political contacts and beliefs in big government with the religious idea of universal responsibility.

While there are few who would advocate that Mr Brown was a born politician after his unpopular three-year tenure, it seems that he has found his true calling in his charitable endeavours. Comfortable in his home county and following a much more easily defined moral compass than that of a Westminster politician, Mr Brown’s talk effectively balanced distant dreams of African children being able to access online courses through smartphones with the “deliverable” target of raising $6 billion over the next years.

The next two East Neuk Debates will take place in the same venue: on February 20th with Menzies Campbell in ”The Referendum: Yes or No to Scottish Independence” and on April  8th with ”Science and Christian Belief- is there a conflict?” with Professor Sam Berry as speaker.

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