The Sunday Telegraph
Many of us want to go back to the way things were five minutes before the pandemic, but the Left sees Covid as an indictment of what we were doing wrong and a chance to change. Of these two roadmaps to the future, Ed Miliband’s Go Big is the easier read, seeking redemption through community activism, bottom-up. Gordon Brown’s Seven Ways to Change the World favours the revival of top-down institutions.
In fact, Brown does want to turn the clock back – not to January 2020, but the 2000s, when the world seemed headed in a globalist direction, until it hit the nationalist buffer of Brexit and Trump. What the populists don’t get, argues the former PM in dense prose stuffed with data, is that global interdependence is not a choice but a fact of life, as proven by the virus, how it spread and how we fought it. What’s needed is more cooperation, not less, embedding the UK deeper into world institutions, pooling risk and tackling social problems – such as global warming and tax evasion – together. Individualism (of which nationalism is a kind of corporate extension) must give way to society, and risk to security.
But how is Brown going to do all this? Successive populations have voted against free trade and free movement, and the virus is likely to see us reduce travel and make more stuff onshore: “security” now is widely associated with reducing one’s vulnerability to global shocks, not diving head-first into the petri
Ed expects you to submit to the wisdom of men who wear Lycra when cycling
dish of globalisation. And, given that Brown avoids all mention of the Labour Party, it’s unclear what the vehicle for change is meant to be (beyond shaping the elite consensus by writing books). In one of the most interesting sections of Seven Ways, Brown weighs up the difference between patriotism and nationalism, arguing that the former is love of one’s country while the latter pits “us” against “them”. But many voters have concluded that competition between nations is a fact of life, too, and that the globalism of the 2000s undermined both our sovereignty and our competitive advantage.
Brexit is touched upon: Brown blames working-class insecurity for its success. Could it not be that the EU is a mess and the voters wanted out? Look at the way it treated Greece or Italy, or even us since we flounced off. Brown says we need a “global growth plan” but I’m not sure I’d trust Brussels, Washington or Beijing to write one that didn’t make our problems infinitely worse.
I counted one joke in Brown’s book; Miliband’s is a veritable gag bank. Ed is self-deprecating and relentlessly upbeat: there is “passion” in cycle lanes, “inspiration” in traffic reduction. “Let me take you to Dunkirk,” begins one section, and if Ed wasn’t so darned likeable, it might sound like a threat.
The Tories called him “Red Ed” when he led Labour, and this was unfair at the time, but he’s grown into the title since, demonstrating a boldness and clarity that might’ve gone down better in 2015 than the social-democratic mush on which he ran. The downside is that he assumes we all want what he wants, that we’d like to live in Dunkirk, and his prescription for community activism (threatening businesses with embarrassment unless they do what you say) sounds to me like extortion. His most frustrating habit is to present radical ideas as cost-free when they’re anything but. Miliband is, for example, a big fan of reducing inner-city traffic with cycle lanes, pedestrianisation and the like, and maybe this worked in Manchester, as he reports, but in London so-called Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) caused confusion, bedeviled the disabled and slowed down ambulances. One Labour council,
Harrow, got rid of them. They are part of a wider philosophy of breaking cities up into self-contained communities so that everything you need is located within a 15-minute walk or cycle, which, again, Ed presents as a no-brainer – but it’s antithetical to choice: not just where you buy groceries or go a doctor’s, but where you go to church or send your kids to school. If you are expected to use the local comp, and that school only, what if it’s a knife-addled sin bin? Or doesn’t fit with your values? Miliband sells eco-communitarianism as common sense, yet the individual is expected to happily subsume their own desires, beliefs or convenience into the collectivist endeavour. Just as Gordon wants the nation to submit to world opinion, Ed expects you to submit to the collective wisdom of men who wear Lycra when cycling.
That said, Brown is right: we do need to cooperate more. Miliband is right: we have devalued our social goods, especially housing – and particularly council housing. With the cost of underinvestment felt in house prices that few can afford, consumers have fallen captive to an expensive private market. There’s no reason why the Tories, rebranded as a post-lockdown “big government” party, can’t nick some of the sensible ideas in these two books and make them their own (they encouraged the LTNs; Boris has signed up to carbon targets Gordon and Ed should approve of). Given this emerging statist consensus, why is there such malice in politics? The Left’s holier-thanthou attitude doesn’t help.
On the cover of Seven Ways, David Schneider writes that it is “so great to feel that, in Gordon Brown, there’s a proper, big-brained adult in the room”. Arabella Weir: “Gordon Brown is one of the last grown-up, truly committed politicians dedicated to public service, putting those he served needs before his own.” Are we to infer that all other politicians are childish charlatans intent on driving the Earth into a wall? Even Gordon Brown’s blurb manages to be passive-aggressive.