By Diane Maclean
The tent was full of the great and the good, and those who had read Sarah’s afternoon tweet promising a “special 2 for 1 offer” were in a state of excitement at the prospect of who she might bring with her. There was little surprise, but an uncharacteristically huge Edinburgh round of applause, when she was joined onstage by her husband Gordon, making an unscheduled appearance at the event.
Over the next hour, the two discussed their time in Downing Street; and what has been occupying them both since leaving. First off was the book-writing – Gordon published his, Beyond the Crash, in December 2010, pipping Sarah to the post by three months.
Alongside this, the pair have continued to work for the causes they support. Both have also taken the year to reflect on what they’ve achieved, and failed to achieve, and what lessons they have learned along the way.
Both provided amusing anecdotes from their time in the spotlight. Sarah, responding to the often-quoted remark “But you’re so ordinary”, told the audience that this had never been her “great goal in life, but clearly I do quite well at it”.
Gordon, too, was disingenuous, describing the day he picked up his son Fraser (aged four) from school and asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up: “A teacher,” he said, “a builder and a dad.” At which he turned ruefully to his father to say: “But you are just a dad.”
While family is hugely important to both of them, the Browns were never going to settle down in Fife to be just “mum and dad”. Sarah is still actively involved with Maggie’s Centres and the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. Gordon is still worrying about the future.
What is bothering him particularly at the moment is the rise of youth unemployment and the need for the UK to have a clearer sense of purpose and responsibility – even more so, given the recent riots in England.
He acknowledged that whilst PM he “tried and failed to secure a debate about national purpose and destiny […] on a society based on fairness and responsibility”. This, he thinks, is a more interesting discussion than the present fixation on rooting out violence and punishing wrongdoers.
Both were vocal about the recent News International scandal, while being careful to stress that it was a matter for the courts. Both were keen to emphasise that they agreed with the notion of a free press, but felt that changes were needed to bring the press to order. The intrusion was, according to Sarah, “always coming down the track at you”, and that with phone hacking “a line had been crossed”.
For Gordon, though, the whole attitude of the press has clearly been trickier. Some papers, he believes, have become politicised so that instead of challenging what you do, they “suggest instead you have a malign motive,” undermine who you are and in doing so “try to destroy pieces of your character”.
It was hurtful, he said, that when he was photographed praying at the Remembrance Service, that the Sun wrote that he had fallen asleep – or that he had refused to bow whilst laying a wreath at the Cenotaph.
Sarah’s worry was more mundane, that with the press “you always feel you’re one step away from your greatest mistake”, which she worried might be leaving Number 10 with toilet paper trailing out of her shoes.
Gordon was at his most passionate talking about our “moral obligation to help people”, but at his most political when discussing the economy. “There are only two kinds of chancellors,” he said, “those who fail and those who get out in time”.
He clearly felt he got out in time, but also acknowledged that the failure to push through banking changes “has put us in danger of a ten-year world depression”. The key to solving it – which he says “doesn’t take much money” – is to tackle youth unemployment. “We will pay a heavy price,” he says “if we continue to let it grow.”
The session wasn’t all serious, though, and included moments of lightness where the Browns described the moment that Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela’s wife, was being awarded her DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in front of ambassadors and dignitaries. On opening the box that was thought to hold the medal, there was only glitter and a hand-made birthday card for Machel, made by the Brown children.
Then there was the time when Gordon was appointed leader of the Labour Party only to have his son, John, tell everyone that his father was leader of the “Lady Party”.
While in power, Gordon always made time to see his children, for baths or bedtime stories. Now that he is no longer running the country, he can spend longer with his family, but also worry about others less fortunate.
Whether talking about children murdered in the Rwandan genocide, or the millions of children across the world who don’t have access to education, he is as impassioned as he gets. And his time out of power has led him to realise that there can only be one solution. “Where the world has failed,” as he says it has on climate change, terrorism, inequality and poverty, it is because “the world has failed to work together.”