As tourists begin to trickle back into Scotland, one essential component of August north of the border is missing: the Edinburgh International Festival. For all of August and some of September, writers, poets, performers, artists and thousands upon thousands of flyers descend on Auld Reekie's streets for the world's biggest arts festival. For visitors and natives alike, the Festival is an opportunity to be immersed in a month's worth of culture, literature and comedy. However, for many it has now become something of an unwelcome imposition, causing the city to double, if not treble, in size and putting ever-greater obstacles in the way of locals going about their business.
In a sense, as Alan Taylor recently reflected in an essay for The Times Literary Supplement
: 'Edinburgh, like Venice, is a victim of its own hype, deluged by culture-seekers who flit in and out, leaving the natives to nurse the hangover'.
As many of you will know, the Edinburgh Book Festival has gone online this year, with events being presented from studios in Edinburgh as well as the home offices of authors and academics from around the globe. One of the highlights of the week just gone was a conversation between Gordon Brown and the Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans.
Whilst the former Prime Minister, sitting in front of voluminous floor-to-ceiling bookcases, was ostensibly interviewing Timmermans, Brown demonstrated the essential qualities that have made him a fixture in Charlotte Square Gardens in recent years. Nestled in his study in North Queensferry, the former Premier seemed more relaxed than is often the case, humorous and genuinely inquisitive. His perpetual interest in the major issues of our times was evident as the two men picked over climate change, full employment and Britain's departure from the European Union.
When Brown is on top form, the Book Festival is a natural home for a man who is often described as Britain's best-read Prime Minister for a generation. Whilst he was known for his quick temper in Downing Street, Gyles Brandreth once recalled that the Prime Minister had even hosted an evening of poetry in Number 10, reading aloud from Burns and Tennyson and speaking of how he had often drawn on 'the consoling and restorative power of verse' in his darkest moments.
Even during his time as Prime Minister, Brown appeared at the Book Festival, in conversation with fellow Scot, Ian Rankin, to mark the event's 25th birthday in August 2008. Charlotte Higgins, now The Guardian's
chief culture writer, considered it to be an 'unutterably dull, flat and uninspired' chat between 'a couple of downbeat blokes from the east of Scotland'. However, it did give an indication of why Brown's appearances have become such an integral component of the Book Festival's calendar for politicos and general readers alike. For Paul Kingsnorth, who was memorably named one of Britain's 'top 10 troublemakers' by the New Statesman
at the turn of the century, on his own turf not far from his then constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Brown was 'relaxed, human and even sincere, in a way that Tony Blair never once managed in 10 years'.
Whilst, as Ian Bell once rightly identified, Gordon Brown has typically been seen as 'a brooding figure condemned to pay the price for hubris and obsessive ambition… so consumed by the politics of petty rivalry and personal advancement', it is unsurprising that he has turned in accomplished performances both as the star act promoting his own writing and as interviewer in Charlotte Square Gardens since leaving office.
As many have pointed out, Gordon Brown could have been the ideal Prime Minister for the 'radio age', where a politician would be judged by the depth, rigour and order of their thinking as well as their ability to express that clearly and effectively, rather than the sharpness of their suit or the glossiness of their latest photo opportunity.
As the man himself notes in his 2017 autobiography, My Life, Our Times
, 'in a more touchy-feely era, our leaders speak of public issues in intensely personal ways, and assume that they can win votes by telling their electors that they "feel their pain"', and for him, 'being conspicuously demonstrative' is simply uncomfortable. Likewise, as Gerry Hassan argued in Scottish Review (November 2017
), his memoirs showed that politics in Brown's world was often reduced to 'one-way communication and monologue'. For a man supremely confident in his own understanding and analysis, Brown had, in Hassan's eyes, neglected to learn 'those important qualities to life, let alone politics, of listening, hearing and genuine exchange'.
Despite this and for all his faults as Prime Minister, I think Brown is a tonic for these troubled and troubling times. Serious, austere, authoritative, learned and authentic, he makes for a strong contrast with the rump of today's leading figures at Westminster. In March, just days before Britain entered lockdown, Gordon Brown took to the pages of The Guardian
to stress the value of international cooperation, which he repeated in early June when he warned that the G20's going AWOL could be 'a death sentence for the world's poorest'. Almost six months on, the question that he raised still stands: 'Why, as the disease engulfs more than 100 countries, has there been no consistent, coordinated global approach not just to tracking, testing and travel but to openly learn from each other about the relative merits of quarantine and social distancing?'
Although Sir John Major is now Britain's most senior elder statesman, and certainly the one who looks most at home in life after office, Brown comes a close second. Whether you are excited about the possible break-up of the UK or are in dread of it, and regardless of what you make of his involvement in the Better Together campaign in 2014, Brown's interventions are always authoritative and seek to elevate public debate.
Whereas the current Prime Minister is giving Mrs Thatcher a run for her money as the most divisive premier of modern times, Brown's interventions appeal to our better nature and seek to bring folk together. Can anyone seriously imagine a post-Number 10 Boris Johnson calling on the government of the day to do more for 'the permanently low paid, the already workless families and the zero-hours contract workers' who have suffered the most during the current crisis, as Brown did last month?
Whilst many regularly argue that Brown let the bankers run amok, prior to the financial crash which ultimately derailed his premiership, and supposedly destabilised Tony Blair's term of office by the 'Us and Them' mentality which set Number 11 apart from his next door neighbour, it is difficult to deny that the country would be in a better state with Brown at the helm in these current times.