The travelling man

<strong>Gordon Brown</strong> likes to portray himself as a chancellor for the world. But he cannot

During the Labour party conference in September, one big beast was doing the rounds of the parties with a plan for Gordon Brown. First, the Prime Minister should fall on his sword for the greater good of the party. It was then necessary, according to this former cabinet minister, for the party to find a role for Brown travelling the world, talking to international economic experts. "There is no one with the level of expertise and the contacts that Gordon possesses," said this senior anti-Brown figure, grudgingly. "If he goes we would have to persuade him to help us out in that area."

In the event, Brown did not fall on his sword, but it is as if he has taken the other half of the advice to heart and found a role for himself as the supreme economic diplomat, a chancellor for the world.

What's more, he could just have found his party a strategy for winning the next election. For the best part of a year, Labour struggled with the basics: it lacked a clear and consistent message and a leader around whom it could unite. It was a party in continuous crisis, with open dissent from the back benches.

“Gordon has to get the Obama visit out of the way, then call a general election. There is no other option”

Now, it couldn't be simpler: keep Gordon Brown on the road promoting himself as the saviour of the global economy, returning to Britain only to report back about how well he is doing. It has worked so far and there is no reason to believe he is about to put a stop to his travels.

It is difficult to believe that it is just eight weeks since Brown stood up before the Labour faithful at the Manchester conference and delivered his "no time for novices" speech. He was advised at the time to go straight from the conference hall to New York to talk about the duties of the advanced economies towards the developing world, and on to Washington for talks with George W Bush. The joke was that things were so bad for Brown at home that his only hope of survival was to end world poverty and sort out the global banking crisis. It didn't seem like much of a strategy. But thus it was that the Brown bounce had its origins away from these islands.

From Washington, he went to Paris where, at a summit of the European leaders of the so-called big four countries of Britain, France, Germany and Italy, he reinvented himself as a dedicated European by claiming joint credit for unlocking £25bn of EU funds to help small businesses. His message in Paris has been replicated many times since: "Where action has to be taken we will continue to do whatever is necessary to preserve the stability of the financial system. The message to families and businesses is that, as our central banks are already doing, liquidity will be assured in order to preserve confidence and stability."

The Prime Minister's international itinerary since the beginning of October has been breathtaking. Barely a week has gone by without a foreign trip. On 12 October he returned to Paris for more talks with President Sarkozy and four days later he travelled to Brussels for a meeting of the EU Council. Then, at the end of the month, he was back in Paris to touch base with his new best friend, Sarkozy, for a third time. At the beginning of November, he was in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Abu Dhabi to persuade Gulf oil state leaders to help finance the bailout of the international banking system. Then, a week later, it was back to Brussels for yet another crisis summit. In total, between the Labour party conference and the G20 summit in Washington, the Prime Minister has spent nearly two weeks out of the country.

At the same time as the globetrotting, Brown has bolstered his reputation as an international statesman through regular meetings at No 10 with world leaders. In the past few days, two presidents have visited: José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, and Shimon Peres, the president of Israel.

The conundrum for Labour is what to do when the recession starts to bite and significant numbers of people start to lose their jobs and their homes. The Prime Minister cannot keep travelling. In the not-too-distant future he will have to fight a general election. But Gordon Brown, for whom fortune has delivered such a dreadful hand in so many ways, has suddenly got lucky. It just so happens that, in April, the UK will be taking its turn at the presidency of the G20 group of world leaders, which means this country will be the venue for the next global economic summit. Brown will therefore be hosting Barack Obama on one of the first foreign trips of his presidency. Fortuitous timing indeed, with a possible snap May election to follow.

As one former cabinet minister who spent a long time at the Treasury told the New Statesman: "Gordon has to get the Obama visit out of the way then call an election. There really is no other option."

Derek Pasquill, a Foreign Office official cleared of breaching the Official Secrets Act, has announced that he will be suing the department for dismissing him from his job. Pasquill's disclosures to the NS about government dialogue with radical Islamist groups helped shift policy in that area. He also exposed details of UK government knowledge about secret CIA "rendition flights" of terror suspects. Like us, the Observer, Channel 4 and the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange ran stories as a result of the leaks and I am sure they will join the NS in offering Pasquill every support in getting his job back.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
Show Hide image

Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.