Show Hide image

Diary: Sarah Brown

Tell me, what was Michelle Obama like?

International Women’s Day has just passed and Gordon and I decided to mark it with a reception to thank female community champions. My favourite comment of the night came from a lovely elderly lady who was there with her MP and who, while smiling for a photograph, turned to Gordon and – not minding my presence at all – said, “I never thought I could get excited at my age – but I’m excited now!” Meeting all these women who are changing lives through their work in businesses, charities and community groups just reminds me that I’m lucky to be from a generation where a woman’s place is . . . everywhere.

Many of the women at the reception were cancer survivors (and have become great fundraisers for further research). My own personal deed for IWD was to sign up for the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Generations Study this week. It commits me to filling in a giant form and promising to add to the body of data that will provide tomorrow’s breakthroughs, prolonging the lives of many loved women. Coincidentally, I was present midweek to celebrate the launch of Wellbeing of Women’s new Baby Bio Bank – a unique collection of samples from pregnant mums, and, rather brilliantly, the dads, too, and their babies. Together the three samples are called Trios. While sounding rather like the 1970s biscuit to me, the Trios will gather vital data to help the next generation of scientists discover new ways to prevent problems for pregnant mums. The combination of the work of our scientific community and the NHS is saving lives every year. The brilliance of our researchers, doctors, nurses and midwives is giving us all more time with these wonder-women survivors and giving them precious extra years with the people who love and need them.

Some weeks have more reception commitments than others. This week was particularly busy, with additional Downing Street events ranging from the RNIB celebration of the bicentenary of Louis Braille’s birth (with the welcome visit of David Blunkett and his popular dog Sadie) to the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation at the regular Tuesday-night charity reception at No 10. It was Cherie Blair who instigated the Tuesday-night slot for a range of different organisations, but I have happily continued the tradition since June 2007 and there is no shortage of charity requests.

I had not seen Cherie for a while, but was pleased to find myself by chance on the same plane to the US last week, so we could catch up with each other’s news of work and family. Although I was only in Washington, DC for one night I was glad I had made the trip. I have never been more moved or more proud of Gordon as he spoke to both houses of the US Congress. He spoke of his values, our British aspirations and the challenge we all face, in his words, “to build tomorrow today”. If something good comes out of these unsettling times it seems apparent, again using words from Gordon’s speech, that “the world has learned what makes for the good society makes for the good economy, too”. Coming back, I see from my emails and letters that many people in Britain thought so, too.

The Big Question when I returned from the US was: “What was Michelle Obama like?”

Answer: warm, friendly, smart, stylish and funny. I can’t wait for the British people to see her close up when she joins her husband on their visit to London for the G20 next month.

My big event this week was a meeting I hosted in support of the Maternal Mortality Campaign with the first lady of Nigeria, Dr Hajia Turai Yar’Adua; the head of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan; the UN’s special envoy for malaria, Ray Chambers; and the US HIV/Aids expert Mark Dybul, together with many committed agencies such as Oxfam, Save the Children and the One Campaign. We met for one thing: to work to reduce the number of mothers and babies dying during pregnancy and childbirth in developing countries, and we all agree it can be done with the right political will and funded interventions. So now we have a plan. Next stop, the G8.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her charming academic professor husband came to visit us on Friday, staying overnight for meetings on Saturday. We combined a relaxed evening with a lot of discussion about the international challenges – a demonstration, to my mind, of the courage many of the leaders are showing to take the necessary steps to rebuild our financial future. A bit of Comic Relief in the background only served all the more to remind us that it is possible to have fun and hold to your values for a better world (especially as Gordon and Douglas Alexander gave £2m from the Department for International Development to double the successful celebrity Kilimanjaro climbers’ target to raise money for malaria eradication). And I was so proud to be British when I saw that people here had donated a record amount, even though times are tough.

Now the weeks ahead hold preparations for the April G20 summit. This was a busy week to report on, but it is almost a shame that Alastair Campbell is not guest-editing the New Statesman in G20 week.

Sarah Brown is global patron of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood and co-chair of the High-Level Leadership Group on Maternal Mortality convened by the Global Leadership Network. She is the wife of the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit