In a room full of development A-listers that included UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Nelson’s Mandela’s widow Graca Machel, Her Royal Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser of Qatar and Grameen Bank founder Professor Muhammad Yunus, it was Britain’s former Prime Minister Gordon Brown who displayed the greatest passion – and drew the loudest cheers.
He’s been doing quite a lot of that recently, as anyone who observed the latter, fraught, stages of the Scottish independence referendum campaign will know.
In the UK at least it’s brought Gordon Brown something of a renaissance. It is not quite a rehabilitation – British voters have not forgotten his humiliating election defeat in 2010, after 13 years of Labour government; and few will allow him to forget the most bruising moment of that election, when he was overheard calling a voter a bigot after she disagreed with him on the campaign trail.
But, after four years in the shadows, Gordon Brown burst back into the UK political spotlight during the Scottish referendum. After a single opinion poll showed the Yes campaign ahead for the first time, panic beset the three main political parties (all of whom wanted to keep Scotland in the Union). Especially worrying for the Labour Party was the fact that its voters were the ones flocking to the Yes campaign in droves. Enter Gordon Brown – a well-known Labour bastion, respected Scot and political heavyweight.
He dominated the last days of the campaign, thundering through speeches, exhorting Scots to vote no. In the end, did he make the difference? We may never know. But, whatever you think of his political views, his achievements or his failures, on a human level this was a man rediscovered, passionate and assured.
Of course to those of us interested in international development, Gordon Brown has never lost his way. As Prime Minister, he was a champion for developing nations and since leaving office he has continued to bring great zeal to the development work he champions – especially on the issue of childhood and girls’ education, giving a nurturing and protective hand to the nascent icon Malala Yusufzai.
Now he’s enjoying a UK political revival, will he turn his back on development issues? I think not.
In a post-referendum, heal-the-divide speech, he deftly married two seemingly disparate causes. ‘What we really want,’ he bellowed, ‘is independence from poverty for millions of people and the inequalities they face!’
I watched that speech in the departure lounge at Heathrow and a few days later I saw Gordon Brown in person at the UN in New York.
In the Delegates’ Dining Room overlooking the East River I was hosting the MDG Advocates Breakfast where a new report was launched on challenges and opportunities of achieving the Millennium Development Goals. One by one I invited the Great and the Good of global development to take the stage and speak. Most read from notes and, as moderator, most made me nervous about time overruns. Gordon Brown didn’t seem pleased when my introduction to him mentioned the Scottish referendum, but he jumped up on stage and thundered once again, this time about education as a right.
While others praised progress made towards the MDGs, Gordon hammered home that ‘we cannot achieve universal education as long as 22m children in conflict-ridden countries are denied the chance to go to school!’ Cue applause.
His impassioned comments – delivered with brevity and without any notes – drew delegates to their feet. In an environment often stifled by protocol, this was genuine fire. Here – as in Scotland – was a man speaking from the heart. For Gordon Brown, campaigning against independence for Scotland or in favour of the global poor are not mutually exclusive. It’s about passion and it’s about bringing the fight.
And as a professional communicator, that is the best way to send a convincing message.