The chess grandmaster and Russian opposition activist Garry Kasparov once wrote that he was an optimist, because he had “never found much advantage in the alternatives”. Kasparov is one of a number of luminaries that the former prime minister Gordon Brown quotes in his new book, Seven Ways to Change the World. Brown himself remains an optimist, writing that “we cannot live by hope alone – but we cannot live without hope”.
A Jewish optimist, the old joke goes, is someone who thinks that things cannot get worse. And after a year like the one we’ve just had, who in the United Kingdom would not be tempted by a dose of Jewish optimism?
The truth, however, is that things can always get worse. In the UK, Covid-19 has so far caused fewer deaths in 2021 than it did in 2020, and the vaccine roll-out has turned the tide of the pandemic, despite the government’s attempts at self-sabotage. But this year’s global coronavirus death toll is already higher than that of last year. The failure of world leaders to agree a plan to vaccinate middle- and lower-income countries is one we have seen before.
An alternative title to Seven Ways to Change the World might have been “Seven Things That Could Well Kill Us All”. The closest the book gets to a joke is a wonderfully phrased bit of gallows humour about the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Those of us who were alive then,” Brown recalls, “found ourselves contemplating the possibility that quite soon we might not be.”
The threat of nuclear proliferation is one of the seven looming disasters: others include global health (“In this still-young century we have witnessed five epidemics: Sars; avian flu; Ebola; Zika; and now Covid-19,” Brown writes, correctly but hardly cheerily); climate change (“Heat, death, drowning, hunger, wildfire… could all be features of ‘normal life’”); and poverty (“For the most part, promises made by political leaders have been long on words but short on delivery”). Less immediately destructive but still pernicious are international financial instability, tax havens, and barriers to education (Brown is the United Nations’ special envoy for global education). Throw in the possibility that we are heading to a “one world, two systems” future, in which China and the West are in a perpetual state of tension, and this isn’t a book I would give to anyone who has considered building a bomb shelter or starting a giant stockpile in the woods somewhere.
[see also: Gordon Brown: How to mend a failing world]
For those with a less nervous disposition, though, I cannot recommend it enough. Despite its hefty subject matter, Brown’s book zips along as he maps out the world’s “ungoverned spaces”, a term that has traditionally meant “the unsafe, lawless zones in failing and fragile states where private warlords, bandits, pirates, terrorist insurgents, arms traders, illicit drug dealers and black marketers hold sway”. David Cameron deployed this phrase in defence of his Libya strategy, but Brown prefers to reference his political opponents obliquely: Cameron and Nick Clegg are variously described gnomically as the nameless “two leaders” of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that replaced Brown’s government; Cameron and George Osborne are “my opponents”.
Brown’s “ungoverned spaces” are not lawless failed states in the control of warlords or criminals, but areas that are “alarmingly much vaster”: arenas where international law has either been outpaced by the speed of technological change, or the rise of isolationist populism. The golden thread that links all the remedies he puts forward is that “global problems need global solutions”.
The book is peppered with quotations and statistics, but never struggles under their weight. Brown achieves a fluency in prose that he rarely managed during his 13 years in Downing Street (as chancellor of the Exchequer and then, from 2007 to 2010, prime minister). This is something he himself acknowledges at the book’s close, writing that he “lost sight of the need to explain to people what we were trying to achieve”.
Seven Ways to Change the World is not perfect. As with New Labour’s other architect, Tony Blair, it sometimes feels that when Brown references technological change, he does so almost out of a sense of obligation, rather than because he has grasped that artificial intelligence – as much as the era of near-zero interest rates, the rising threat of thermonuclear war, or the danger of a pandemic – is a danger that stalks the world’s “ungoverned spaces”. There is perhaps not quite enough attention paid to the challenge posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And Brown’s surprisingly strong streak of optimism can at times feel Pollyannaish.
But as a call for global cooperation and a clear explanation of many of the planet’s greatest challenges, Seven Ways to Change the World is certainly more convincing than the partial and inadequate moves made at the recent G7 meeting, and a more clear-sighted vision of the threats we face than anything yet managed by Keir Starmer.
[see also: The revolt of the English]
Seven Ways to Change the World
Simon & Schuster, 512pp, £25
This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web