Gordon Brown’s serious solutions are out of tune with the age

Despite its noble intentions, there is an inescapable whiff of hubris about the former prime minister’s new book

July 12, 2021
Universal solutions: Gordon Brown in 2014 Credit: Steven Scott Taylor
Universal solutions: Gordon Brown in 2014 Credit: Steven Scott Taylor

Can a former British prime minister really address the world’s problems a decade after he left power? In his new book, a serious work by a diligent author, Gordon Brown draws on abundant research to call for stronger international collaboration—enabled by greater funding and a more powerful UN, WHO and World Bank. He wants these institutions to resolve seven critical problems, each a product of “ungoverned spaces”—policy domains that reach beyond national boundaries.

Brown knows of what he speaks. He has used similar international collaboration before—for instance, in brokering the deal to write-off £30bn owed by developing countries in 2005, and in leading efforts to recapitalise the global banking industry after the financial crisis of 2008.

And yet there is an inescapable whiff of hubris to the argument. Brown’s solutions are technocratic, but it’s not clear that the problems are technical in nature.

Brown points out that large emerging market countries— such as India, Indonesia and China—lack strong institutions of social protection, resulting in significant poverty and inequality. Yet some such emerging countries are now richer than the US and western Europe were when they were establishing their welfare states. So Brown’s argument that more western aid is always the solution seems muddled.

Less classically Brownite is the book’s argument that social movements will provide the impetus for change. He notes the success of Black Lives Matter in changing attitudes to race—and the potential for other youth-led movements to drive progress of their own.

But is this the vision of today’s most vocal social forces—including BLM? Brown quotes Orwell’s description of nationalism’s pathologies: “the habit of assuming… that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’” It is exactly this habit of mind that is evident in some identity-fuelled movements. Brown’s universalist thinking is compelling (including to this reviewer), but sadly it is out of tune with the age.

Seven Ways to Change the World: A Global Manifesto to Fix the Most Pressing Problems We Face by Gordon Brown (Simon & Schuster, £14.99)