Shortly before the Scottish independence referendum, Gordon Brown delivered a series of speeches that critics widely credited with swaying huge numbers of undecided voters to opt to remain a part of the United Kingdom. There was also a widespread consensus that his speeches were “barnstorming”.
I’ve never heard anything in the world described as “barnstorming”, except for Gordon’s speeches in Scotland. While his recent talk in Birmingham may not be a tour-de-force, the former prime minister is confident, comfortable, and, most importantly, convincing, as he makes his case for remaining in the European Union.
It’s a warm morning in Birmingham, and the social club is poorly ventilated. Gordon, dressed in a smart suit and tie, is likely a bit too warm. In the first of his two opening jokes, he references the heat: “In Scotland we have two seasons: July and winter”.
Gordon begins the main body of his argument by describing the European Union’s genesis after the Second World War. He tells a story of George Brown, a former Foreign Secretary, getting caught saying something stupid, “and we all know about being overheard on the microphone”. It isn’t clear if Gordon is referencing himself or David Cameron’s recent gaffe, but the joke gets a lot of laughs in the room.
Without muddling his words, Gordon speaks quickly. He only ever pauses to let a joke breathe, and even then just for a second. His core arguments are simple: the European Union provides jobs, the protection of worker rights, and is the only way to combat illegal immigration.
“Birmingham is the manufacturing heart of the country”, Gordon says. He tells us these jobs are at risk; nearly half of the cars made in the city region are sold to the European Union. Across the country and in other industries, he paints a similar picture: 56 per cent of British pharmaceuticals are sold to the European Union. To much of the audience’s surprise, most Scottish whiskey is sold to France. Overall, 45 per cent of British trade is with the European Union.
The leaders of the Brexit camp: Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson have suggested other markets could make up for the loss of the European trading block. Gordon mockingly calls them, “These great friends of mine”, to get a few laughs before taking on their claim. “4.5 per cent of our exports go to China; 1.5 per cent to India; 1.4 per cent to Canada; 15 per cent to America”. He reels off this list casually, contrasting it again with the 45 per cent figure for the European Union.
Convinced he’s made the case for trade, Gordon moves on to what he considers to be the other primary concerns: safety, national identity, job losses, and globalization. “How can we have the national identity we feel proud of”, he asks, “while maintaining the cooperation we need?” Treading this line is difficult, but something Gordon feels he achieved in office. He sees his opposition to the euro currency as proof of his putting UK interests first. But, he stresses, “We can’t have an economic Berlin Wall”.
With a sharp scratching ring, the microphone stops working. Gordon isn’t fazed. Instead, he moves on to the next topics: energy and the environment, while the speakers stop and start. Energy, specifically renewables, requires international cooperation. This is because Britain can’t guarantee a steady amount of wind or waves, for example. However, through the European Union, we are able to rely on our neighbours when our resources fall short. Similarly, Gordon argues environmental regulations cannot work unilaterally. Limiting carbon emissions can only happen if multiple countries agree to the same limits.
On a darker note, Gordon brings up the, often intertwined, threats of illegal immigration and terrorism. Both, he makes clear, can only be halted through international teamwork. “You need systematic ways of cooperating”, he says, “because it won’t work on an ad hoc basis”. Simply put, an isolated Britain won’t be able to call the European Union as and when it wants. The same is true of illegal immigration: traffickers and gangs, like terrorists, operate across borders. Leaving the European Union isn’t a deterrent in any form.
“Boris Johnson says, ‘Leave Europe to be in the world’”, Brown pauses to laugh. I lose track of the heads of state from around the world he lists, from Barack Obama to leaders from all over the Commonwealth, “and they all say to stay… well, except for Donald Trump”.
On the issue of sovereignty, Brown concedes this country sacrifices some to be in NATO and the World Trade Organisation, but, equally, so does the United States.
The social club we’re in occupies land formerly used by wartime air-raid wardens. Brown uses this to talk about Britain in the 40s. “Standing alone in Dunkirk, we weren’t an inward looking nation; we were outward looking”. At that point in European history, as Brown point out, the continent had suffered through a long series of wars. “Thanks to debate and dialogue we are the first generation in Europe not at war. Peace is imbedded thanks to joint decision making”. Brown wants to maintain this, “so none of our children ever have to be conscripted to fight in Europe again”.
At this point, with the audience more receptive, Brown lists worker rights achieved by the European Union: maximum working weeks, holiday pay, maintaining rights when companies go under and are bought out. This resonates well with the predominantly Labour-voting crowd. “We don’t want a race to the bottom where exploitative employers undercut workers by taking jobs in this country and dumping them in others with lower standards”. He says we want, instead, a marketplace with morals, and the European Union prevents countries with lower standards from stealing our jobs.
It’s a bit of a reach, but Brown decides to bring up Nelson Mandela, depicting their relationship as friendly. For Mandela’s 90th birthday, he came to London to raise money for charity. While there, he said to Brown, “In my life as president I managed to bring people together who were split down the middle. The only way forward in life is to work together”. Because of this, Brown says Mandela would advise to stay in.
From Mandela, Brown moves to through to the horrors of apartheid, British troops fighting for peace and freedom in Europe, exposing the terrors of the holocaust, and Europe working together so it’s never repeated.
The audience applaud him, and Steve McCabe, MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, asks members of the audience for questions. The first two of which are, inevitably, about benefits and uncontrolled immigration.
“We aren’t in Schengen so we don’t have open borders”, Brown states plainly. “An economist will tell you immigration is a good thing because it means more highly skilled people, but the costs are borne by individual communities”. He sees EU immigration as a distraction from the real problem: illegal immigration. The European Union gives us the power to throw people out if they break the law. The way to stop immigrants undercutting British workers, he argues, is to enforce the minimum wage.
Someone asks him what he thinks Europe will look like in 50 years. He skilfully avoids the question, at first. Instead, he says in the 40s and 50s it was said the Commonwealth was our future, as 40 per cent of our trade came from there at that time. But the world has changed, and, looking ahead, Brown seems concerned that Africa and the Middle East lack the infrastructure to deal with growing populations and climate change. It will be Europe most affected by any mass migration from these regions, Brown believes, due to our proximity. And Brown feels we, with the rest of Europe, have a duty to aid these places. “We, the country that has been the most international of nations, what message then would we send if we voted to isolate ourselves”.
Someone thanks him for bailing out the banks and protecting her savings, going on to ask about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The following question echoes her concerns, however, Brown doesn’t think this agreement would endanger the NHS with privatisation. “We will and must have the final say if we reach a decision on a trade agreement with America”. The first woman also asks about Tory cuts to disability benefits. Brown says the European Union are looking into that issue at the moment, adding, “If you give me your address, I’ll write to you and let you know”.
For the final question, a man stands up to say, “There’s no point in telling people immigrants bring £20 million to the economy if the communities with most immigrants aren’t seeing any of that money spent on them”. Brown says there’s got to be some sharing. The last Labour government created a migration assistance fund; it wasn’t big enough, Brown says, and isn’t now. “We know immigrants provide skills but we have to make the balance right”. He also says other countries, like the United States, should support us when we accept more refugees.
To summarise his speech and the question and answer session that followed, Brown says, “Britain has an international reputation, but we can’t solve these problems alone”. He then reminds the audience that Eastern European countries joining the European Union have to accept British values in order to do it. His point being, this referendum isn’t a choice between leaving and remaining; it’s leaving Europe or leading Europe. He hopes we vote for the latter.
Outside, Brown signs copies of his latest book, Britain: Leading Not Leaving. All the proceeds go to charity. Brown smiles for every photo, standing close to whoever poses next to him. He has a dignified ease I feel he lacked as Prime Minister, particularly in the 2010 TV debates.
With a series of similar televised debates planned ahead of this referendum, and given Cameron’s reticence to appear in them, perhaps his predecessor will, once again, be the statesman Cameron isn’t.