Among the things Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband have in common, apart from electoral defeat to David Cameron, is a fascination with the best of all possible worlds. That compulsion, which fuels both of these books, might be thought of as the globalist gene, the unbending faith that things can only get better if people would only listen harder to the wisdom of progressive thinktanks.
Their twin “how to fix it all” volumes are published pointedly ahead of a quartet of global summits that neither will attend: the G7 meeting in Cornwall this weekend, August’s nuclear non-proliferation conference at the UN, the G20 summit in Italy in October and the Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow in November. To Brown, these meetings represent, post-Trump and, tentatively, post-Covid, “the opportunity to unwind the protectionism of the last decade and reactivate international collaboration”. You can only trust that President Xi of China and comrade Putin, not to mention our own Brexity prime minister, have received advanced copies of his book.
It is, perhaps, not surprising that Brown retains an optimistic view of such gatherings. He is one of a handful of politicians who can claim to have used them to effect lasting change – first in brokering the deal to Drop the Debt at the 2005 Gleneagles Summit, wiping out £30bn of legacy obligations in developing countries, and second in heroically coordinating the recapitalisation of the global economy after the banking crisis of 2008. His “seven ways to change the world” imagine similar “cometh the hour” interventions, full of technocratic chutzpah. As he likes to say, in a phrase that presupposes a different world to that in which we live, “global problems require global solutions”.
Brown, at 70, directs his formidable attention to what he calls “ungoverned spaces”, by which he means not rogue states and lawless regions, but the crises that national governments acting alone cannot reach – the polluted oceans and expanding deserts, the tax-haven black holes and the vulnerable tech of thermonuclear defence – not to mention the threadbare blanket of global health provision, harshly spotlit by the pandemic.
Brown has little interest in those most stubborn human traits, good and bad, that cling to tribe and tradition
His prescriptions for these crises, current and potential, focus unsurprisingly on making the institutions formed in the post-colonial 20th century – the UN, the World Health Organization, the World Bank – fit and funded for the urgent challenges of the 21st century. His chapters dwell on the mechanics of future pandemic prevention, the architecture of a global Green New Deal, a plan to deliver education to every child, the abolition of tax havens and the elimination of nuclear weapons. Characteristically, his interest lies less in storytelling than in political analysis; there is sometimes a depth of detailed structural economic wisdom that might keep Treasury whiz kids on the edge of their ergonomic seats, but less so the general reader. Brown describes his solutions as “on the credible end of desirable”.
Though he has a chapter entitled “Tackling populist nationalism head on”, the tone of his argument retains a sense that any deviation from the idea of the world as he describes it is a kind of irritant to be brushed aside in the manner of Gillian Duffy (“that bigoted woman”) on the 2010 campaign trail. It may be true that the solutions to all of the problems he describes are rooted “in a multi-global not just bi-polar world” and that the “block in all areas lies in a seductive and corrosive force – nationalism”, but he has little interest in pursuing a closer understanding of those most stubborn human traits, good and bad, that irrationally resist change and cling to tribe and tradition. Why can’t they just see sense?
Ed Miliband was for a decade Brown’s special adviser – in the habit in those years, as he writes here, of unplugging all his phones on weekend mornings to avoid another lecture from his boss. His book, which originates from a podcast called Reasons to Be Cheerful that he co-launched with radio presenter Geoff Lloyd in autumn 2017, is chattier than that of his former mentor, more anecdotal in its approach to saving the world (in the advance publicity for the book you could be forgiven for believing it was a memoir about how Miliband came late to learning to ride a bike but now has the zeal of the converted).
Still, the “Go Big” of the title argues that the scale of the crises we face must define the scale of the solution. The fragile, debt-swamped economy of the post-pandemic world requires radical reshaping rather than piecemeal tinkering. Miliband is a listener where Brown is a preacher, and he draws inspiration from wherever he can find it: Franklin Roosevelt, Icelandic female strikers, Paul Stephenson and the Bristol bus boycott. At the heart of his argument is a truism with which no reader of this paper would be likely to disagree: “We can’t remake the high-carbon unjust world as the zero-carbon unjust world.” What follows is the outline (none of it set in stone) of “a renewed social contract” that involves at least 20 clauses. It’s a familiar wishlist, but one set out with likable energy: a Green New Deal, universal basic income (or a one-off “freedom dividend”), stakeholder capitalism, a living wage for carers, better work-life balance, a calling to account of big tech and its billionaires, cycle lanes, citizens’ assemblies, fossil fuel divestment…
When it comes to the question of how these ideals are to be brought about, Miliband seems to believe, despite a good deal of decent evidence to the contrary, that a collective sea change in the observable motivation of nations and individuals might well be imminent.
“We need to recognise a different set of values if we are to tackle the challenges we face,” he writes. “We do care about each other, we do have a deep well of empathy…” That “we” becomes so insistent in the course of his book that you start to wonder who he means by it – all of his likely readers? All world leaders? All of humanity? If the politics of the past five years, or the past 50 years, has taught us anything, it might perhaps be that the wisdom of Dr Pangloss only gets you so far.
Seven Ways to Change the World: How to Fix the Most Pressing Problems We Face by Gordon Brown is published by Simon & Schuster (£25). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Go Big: How to Fix Our World by Ed Miliband is published by Bodley Head (£18.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply