Happy to raise expectations

G8: Interview with Gordon Brown - It's strange when a politician urges people to make the politician

Gordon Brown is poring over a coffee-table book on the life and times of Nelson Mandela as we arrive. He wants to talk about the great man and the contribution he and his wife, Graca Machel, have made, not just to guiding South Africa out of apartheid, but to raising awareness of broader injustices across the world. The gap between north and south is, the Chancellor tells us, re-animating the public's approach to politics. He cites a recent meeting on aid, trade and debt relief he attended at a school in his Scottish constituency, at which there was standing room only. And people say politics is dead.

Rarely can expectations have been raised so high about a single event and politicians' willingness or ability to create real change as they are in the approach to the Gleneagles summit, but Brown insists that the G8 jamboree is just the start. The work will carry on through a UN special summit in September and a World Trade Organisation ministerial conference in Hong Kong in December. "All of these goals will not be met in one day, or even one year. These are longer-term ideals, bolder, radical, which we can achieve in years to come," he says. One can already hear the sighs of disappointment and frustration, for it sounds as if Brown is massaging hopes downwards. "The opposite is true," he says. "Until a year ago the problem was that public expectations were too low. What has happened in the past few months is historic."

The Chancellor runs through the scorecard so far: agreement within the EU to double aid; a separate deal by the richest industrialised nations to write off £22bn worth of debt for 18 countries, 14 of them in Africa, which have already qualified for the World Bank's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. He is particularly pleased at having persuaded Germany and Italy, the two EU laggards, to support debt write-offs for the first time. Roughly 35 years after the Pearson report and 25 years after the Brandt commission, all this marks "a remarkable feat".

Hold on a second. Pearson suggested increasing each country's share of official aid to 0.7 per cent of gross national product. Brandt suggested the higher figure of 1 per cent of GDP. And where are we in the UK, all these years later? Moving in tiny incremental shifts, and still way below 0.5 per cent. So far only four EU countries - Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden - have met the 0.7 target. The late James Callaghan agreed to it while prime minister in the late 1970s, and now the government says it will finally meet it by . . . 2013. Brown bridles at this, suggesting that it is not so easy to conjure up the funds. Yet there never seems to be a problem finding money to fight wars, we suggest. This point he ignores, declaring instead that under the Conservatives, British aid stood at 0.26 per cent of GDP, and much of that was tied to non-development projects. "We have quadrupled support for Africa. I cannot think of any country that has moved more quickly in recent years."

He adds: "Of course we wanted to do more and do it more quickly."

We turn to the International Finance Facility, Brown's plan to front-load £60bn worth of aid by selling bonds on global capital markets. The proposal has been rejected out of hand by the Bush administration, Japan and a few European governments. Brown has not given up hope of securing something at Gleneagles, but is ready to build his own small coalition of the willing: "A lot of people support the IFF. It's for the Americans to make their decision."

He admits that not everyone will sign up, but argues, "I want to give every country the chance." The closest he comes to criticising Tony Blair's buddy George W Bush is: "I'm not claiming that every world leader is moving forward."

As for US resistance to any meaningful progress on climate change, the Chancellor suggests this is not for him, but for his colleague and rival next door. "This is not something finance ministers have been very involved in," he says.

It is over the detail of development policy that Brown becomes excited. A pilot IFF scheme to fund vaccinations in Africa could, he insists, "be persuasive" in bringing doubters alongside the bigger funding project. He talks delightedly of his surprise at finance ministers willingly get- ting involved in the nitty-gritty of health issues, particularly malaria. He says pharmaceutical companies will be prevailed upon to act on an advance-purchase scheme for drugs only if governments work with them. It has, he says, been a "privilege to be part" of these plans.

Something seemed to happen to Brown one week in January. A man who would spend all his foreign trips wanting to get home as quickly as possible became agitated and inspired by what he saw in Tanzania, Mozambique and elsewhere in Africa. It was, astonishingly, his first trip to the continent, and with his talk of a new Marshall Plan he has brought an enthusiasm and vigour to the issue that might not have been possible from others who have seen and done it all before.

He smiles when we suggest that this galvanises him in a way that domestic politics - and the long wait for the big prize - no longer do. Brown talks of "the mixture of grinding poverty and great potential" of the African continent. He describes as "scandalous" the lack of schooling and other basic rights. "For $6bn-$7bn a year you could pay for the education of every child. That is 105 million people, two-thirds of whom are girls." He cites Uganda, where "there were two million kids at school. Now there are six million. In Kenya there are now an extra one million at school."

What about the conditions applied to aid? Brown says that, in the 1960s and 1970s, "it was about getting the right leader. Now it is about transparency, accountability. These are our best guarantee." Such transparency, requiring governments to open their books, should be applied equally in developed and developing states, he says, citing - he cannot resist a swipe at the EU - information "such as the full cost of the CAP". Conditions remain attached to aid, but he suggests these are new conditions.

The Chancellor goes further, perhaps further than he ever has before. The principles on which the IMF and World Bank based their lending strategy during the early period of post-colonialism are now redundant, he argues. "Structural adjustment has been shifted to what people call policies for sustainable development," he says. "The Washington consensus of the 1980s, with its emphasis on privatisation and cuts in social provision, is over. That is not where America or Europe is now. The need for public-private investment is now accepted by both left and right. Opinion has moved. We now have a pro-poor policy."

So is this a case of neoconservatives and social democrats being at one? "At no time in the history of the G7 have we seen such a commitment to tackle poverty and to debt relief," he says.

During his Africa tour Brown dismissed the idea that Britain had any need to apologise for its colonial record. "We should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it," he said at the time. Didn't that raise a few eyebrows? "I don't think it did," he responds. "What I was saying is that it is time to look to the future and not to the past. We must have a new relationship to the past, to move to a new age of empowerment. We should be focused on the future."

Yes, but was the empire a good thing, as he appeared to imply, or not? He refuses to "hark back to the past", only to paraphrase Harold Macmillan from 1960. "Instead of winds of change, we have a pervasive climate of injustice and poverty which is an affront to all of us."

It is strange when politicians urge protesters to urge the poli-ticians to do more, but that is the state of play as Gleneagles approaches. Brown heaps praise on Oxfam, Christian Aid, other non-governmental organisations and church groups, and - inevitably - Bono and Bob Geldof. He welcomes the forthcoming marches in Edinburgh and elsewhere, urging that they must be "properly stewarded" to ensure that "nothing happens which prevents us from focusing on the issues".

And he says: "Already what people have done and said outside mainstream political activity has made a huge difference. The changes wouldn't have happened without the dialogue with NGOs. Millions of people have now taken up the issue. The challenge for Gleneagles is to build on what's happened so far."

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Now is the time to act