From the window of his home study, Gordon Brown looks out across the waters of the Firth of Forth, towards the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. It is a precious glimpse of open horizons, in a world closing in.
The former prime minister is holed up here hitting the phones in search of what he considers the missing piece in the coronavirus jigsaw: a coordinated global pooling of resources against the pandemic and accompanying recession. No government can honestly claimto be doing “whatever it takes” – the chancellor Rishi Sunaks refrain, echoing the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, during the 2012 euro crisis – unless it coordinates with governments worldwide, he insists to me over the phone.
“Each country will say: Were doing what we can,” he says. “Each country might even say: Were doing the best we can. But nobody can say: Were doing whatever it takes unless you bring people together – the key decision-makers, the key governments who can finance this. Thats when confidence comes back to the world economy and thats when people think things can be brought under control.” Leading Britain through the 2008 banking crisis taught him, he says, that it is not just about money, but showing you have diagnosed and gripped the problem.
Browns fear is that while we struggle with the first wave of infection, the foundations for a second or third or fourth are being laid, as coronavirus hits developing countries terrifyingly ill-equipped to suppress it. Covid-19 is taking hold in countries with struggling health systems, where some lack running water to wash hands, and where the choice is between risking infection by going to work or going hungry.
“Ive talked in the last few days to the prime minister of Ethiopia, the president of Sierra Leone, people in Ghana – they all know they have got a coming problem and in some cases its already there,” says Brown. Helping them prevent disaster is not only right, he suggests, but in our own interests; so long as infection lingers anywhere in the world, it will keep coming back to countries who think they have beaten it. “This is not some abstract globalist thing,” he says. “None of us are going to be properly safe until all countries are free of this.”
So, what does he make of Donald Trumps decision to withdraw funding from the World Health Organization (WHO) mid-pandemic, seen in some quarters as an attempt to distract from the presidents handling of the outbreak in the US?
“Its illogical, it is counter-productive, its really sabotaging the efforts to coordinate global health and its an act of self-harm because it will rebound to hurt America,” he says, bluntly. “If the next wave of the virus comes out of Africa because the WHO and others have not been able to help them contain and suppress the disease, then no doubt President Trump will blame Africa and demonise them as well as the WHO.” Yet he hopes the US may still fund some arms length WHO initiatives on coronavirus, and insists he hasnt given up on a global response: “I still dont rule out getting countries round the world to bring China and America back into cooperation.”
Brown has persuaded more than 200 ex-leaders and ministers, economists and medical experts to back detailed proposals for global cooperation that he hopes will make the agenda of this weeks meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. The open letter they have signed calls for a global pledging conference where governments could collectively agree to fund the search for a vaccine, treatments, ventilators and personal protective equipment worldwide. Instead of competing for scarce stocks, Brown wants countries to cooperate in boosting supply for all. “Ive got no doubt if there was greater global coordination you could solve many of the problems that we face in this country – but also other countries are facing – about the lack of test kits, the lack of protective clothing, the lack of ventilators.”
The letter also calls for a taskforce of the G20 group of powerful nations to agree assistance for developing countries, plus joint interventions to stop a global recession becoming a 1930s-style depression.
“Thefear people have is that a liquidity crisis in companies becomes a solvency crisis, and a recession becomes a depression and thats what we have got to avoid,” says Brown. “Action can be taken to minimise the number of weeks and months the economy is closed down, or at least partially closed down, but the international action is important.” The economic repercussions of the virus are, he thinks, “bigger than the global financial crisis and theres no doubt that they are as big in some countries as the Great Depression”.
He flatly refuses to criticise Boris Johnsons handling of the epidemic, from shortages of protective clothing to the timing of lockdown. But isnt his letter tacit recognition that current leaders are failing? He sighs. “I dont want to look back on what decisions have been made, I want to look forward to see what decisions could be made in the future. We arent trying to criticise, we are trying to encourage.” The convalescing prime minister, he insists, has his sympathy. “I feel sorry for Boris Johnson, because at the moment, when the greatest call upon executive action is being made, hes found himself out of it. That must be very frustrating and very sad.” Asked if hes in touch with Johnson, his stand-in, Dominic Raab, or Sunak, Brown says only that hes “talking to people who are in touch with the decision-making in government”.
Isnt he frustrated, lacking the power to do what he feels needs doing? A burst of laughter, which I suspect disguises a yes, rolls down the line. “Ive got a few ideas that might be able to be helpful, but Im not claiming anything else.”
Yet this strikes closer to home than he cares to admit. Its when I ask how he is coping personally with lockdown that he momentarily falters. “For me its uh … you know, we had to protect our son so we had to take action quite quickly.” Gordon and Sarah Browns son Fraser, 13, has the lung condition cystic fibrosis and government advice is to shield sufferers from the virus. It is a sensitive subject, the Browns guard the boys privacy fiercely (they also have an older son, 16-year-old John). Brown doesnt want to discuss how this affects his political mission, but eventually says gruffly: “What I do know is all of us have had to deal with a crisis at one point in our life, so you do feel whenever theres a crisis you have got to act quickly. Thats whats motivating me at the moment.”
We are on safer ground discussing the books getting him through lockdown. Hes just ordered the novelist Linda Grants latest (he found her 2000 book When I Lived in Modern Times, the story of a Jew from the East End of London moving to what was then Palestine, “amazing”) and is ploughing through policy proposals to retrain people out of work during lockdown. At 68, he scoffs at the notion of retiring: “Nobody retires now!”
But nor does Brown crave a comeback. When he surfaced on the BBCs Today programme in March, a wave of nostalgia surged through Twitter and he got some “very generous” messages from the public. But while Tony Blair remains a political player, Brown doesnt regret leaving London to live quietly in his old constituency of Dunfermline East after losing the 2010 election.
“I used to say my best advice is not to take my advice,” he jokes. “Ive not involved myself in business or anything else and Ive not interfered in the Labour party. Ive just tried to do what I can to help various causes. I dont think former leaders should claim any special privileges or insights. There may be occasions when your experience is of use but you should be modest enough to realise that youve got a new group of leaders and its their time.” He has discussed his proposals with Labours new leader, Keir Starmer, but“its up to him to decide what he wants to do. I wish him well. I think hes an excellent choice.”
He tweeted that Starmers was the team that could return Labour to power, so why does he think Starmer can succeed where Jeremy Corbyn failed? “Because Keirs very good,” he begins, before spotting the trap and declining to discuss domestic politics.
Why does he think countries have been initially slow to cooperate against coronavirus? “In the first few years after 2010 there was a sort of defensive nationalism – protectionism, tariffs, building walls, people putting import controls down. I think in the last year or two, its been a more aggressive nationalism,” he says. “Were dealing with an atmosphere that is a problem. But I think people have got to stop re-running the debate between globalists and nationalists. This is about saving lives.”
Brown reckons a moratorium on debt interest repayments owed by the poorest countries could, for example, release £40bn for health and social protection. “Thats almost a decision that if you made today, the countries could act on it tomorrow.” But some will surely need IMF bailouts, reliant on richer countries willingness to finance them.
During the banking crisis, Brown was working 20-hour days, knowing that if his recapitalisation plan failed and banking collapsed then anarchy could follow. What advice can he give leaders operating now under similar pressure? “For me, it was a huge challenge. You know people didnt always agree with the way I did it … but youve got to quickly understand whats needed to be done, and then youve got to mobilise every possible resource to do it. Some of the methods you use are controversial, but youve got to take the widest possible view.”
His mistake, he suggests, was succeeding in emerging from recession, but failing to convey the case for running a fiscal deficit to do so. “Youve always got to be thinking of what happens next. In Britain at the moment weve got to get out of the immediate crisis, but then youve got this issue of which companies are going to survive after youve solved the medical problem.”
This Gordon Brown is mellower than the rather defensive one I encountered in office, perhaps as a result of no longer being constantly attacked. If it hurts to see the Tories lauded for turning Keynesian overnight, it doesnt show.
“The irony is that 10 years ago, the conventional wisdom was that running a deficit, as Keynes had argued in the 1930s, wasnt fashionable,” he says philosophically. “I think we were right then and I think people accept that we did the right thing, but we got penalised for it. Now theres a better understanding that if economic activity in your economy collapses then the only organisation that can come in is the government. To be honest, its sad that what happened in 2010 led to austerity and everything else, because that was the inevitable consequence of not understanding that you had to run a fiscal deficit to deal with the problem.”
Brown wont say how the current bailouts should ultimately be paid for, but thinks one legacy of the virus may be greater aversion to risk. “Theres climate change, theres cybersecurity issues, nuclear proliferation issues. People in this generation are going to be more aware that the balance of risk and security has to be examined and that will raise questions about what people expect of government.”
If anything, he thinks enforced separation under lockdown has encouraged such solidarity. “Being isolated, people realise the need to be connected, the importance they attach to friendship, the importance of acting as a community.”
After years of separatist political movements, from Scottish independence to Brexit, is this crisis illustrating the dangers of separation?
“It becomes a moment where we have got to make a choice,” he says. “If we cant cooperate on this, then it doesnt say much about the world and I do think people in the end will.”
And so I leave him to his phone calls; cloistered from the world now, but forever looking out.