The 500 folk inside the Edinburgh Book Festival’s main theatre broke into applause when the mystery guest was announced as Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Ian Rankin was to interview him. 2008 is the 25th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Even though the weather didn’t play its part, the festival’s director, Catherine Lockerbie, was clearly delighted at securing a headline worthy opening event.
Ian Rankin, involved since the festival’s inception, is something of a Charlotte Square favourite. The talk began with some niceties regarding the success, longevity and hard work of all involved in the book festival. Rankin and Brown’s mutual graduations from Edinburgh University were thrown into the conversation and Brown’s reasons for becoming involved in politics were touched upon, but never fully explained. It soon became clear how wordy Gordon Brown is; each brief question by Rankin seemingly generated a few thousand word answer. The Prime Minister also likes to recite quotations, which were humorous if not always original in their execution… time for some new material Gordon!?
Rankin had brought some of Gordon Brown’s books along: “Courage: Eight Portraits” and “Britain’s Everyday Heroes”. Through discussion of the characters in the Courage book we witnessed Gordon Brown’s passion toward his subject material. In no uncertain terms Brown proclaimed “I want Aung San Suu Kyi not only to be released but to be in power in Burma”. Brown’s admiration for other great 20th century characters such as Nelson Mandela, Raoul Wallenberg and Cicely Saunders shone through.
We learnt Brown did not define courage as lacking fear, infact far from it. He believes courage is the belief and passion to see one’s ideals through. The Courage book in particular sounded a decent read and Rankin spoke of how good a job Brown had done of bringing out the characters and explaining why they did what they did. I imagine there would have been brisk sales of Brown’s pre-signed books after this event: always useful to have a secondary income!
Brown’s key phrase was “global citizenship”. The key theme of the 20th century had been righting injustices and Brown believed the key theme of the 21st century would be how we globally co-exist. Apparently Brown had been reading a lot about the Internet and how it fits into this global world. Given the speed and reach of global communication he didn’t think it would be possible for an event on the scale of the Rwandan genocide to happen again. Personally I agree we would probably get quicker/better information in the future, but surely just because the world knows about something, doesn’t necessarily mean it will act?
Brown’s next book will revolve around the “being British” theme. This provided the perfect link for Brown to outline why he is against the Scottish National Party’s aim for an independent Scotland. Apparently when the Union was conceived only 3% of Scots and English had cross-border relatives, now it is 50%. While statistically this is a dramatic increase, it also surely reflects the nature of today’s mobile world. Brown’s further arguments regarding freedom of health care across borders, economies of scale of a larger Britain, etc. appeared stronger.
Knife crime, as reported on the major news networks was also discussed by the Prime Minister. Brown made it clear he acknowledged the scale of the problem in some of our cities and thought the solution was for communities to ‘rise up’ and ensure carrying knives was socially unacceptable. Rankin added the cautious note, suggesting it may take generations for such a culture shift to happen.
Rather bravely three questions from the public were taken at the end. Brown must have been delighted with the simple nature of the first question: “How do you write Prime Minister?”. We learnt the Prime Minister writes with a keyboard, although he makes a lot of mistakes. And the only free time he has to write is first thing in the morning. If that sounds like a succinct answer: it wasn’t, as Brown peppered his response with quotations and tales of Winston Churchill. The second question went for the jugular and asked Brown about the Britain his Government had created; a Britain where “it feels the only things we don’t have rules and regulations for is sex and breathing”. Brown turned the question back to communities and society and how important it is for each to set their own discipline, without too much Government intervention. The question was out of context with the morning: this was an easy going chat at the 11am Book Festival opener, not Prime Minister’s Question Time.
The final question asked whether the deepening economic crisis would be at odds with the “Make Poverty History” campaign. Brown didn’t think so and reverted back to the global world; quoting how Africa imports much of its food, so if we solved these problems globally we would help both the economic problem and the poverty problem. This final question gave Brown his first opportunity to mention the terrorist threat - if we don’t help the lives of the third world, in food and education terms, then extremist groups will.
Overall Gordon Brown and Ian Rankin at the Edinburgh Book Festival was a rather light, yet enjoyable hour of entertainment. Brown did monopolise the conversation and skirted over the crux of some questions; while Rankin often failed to dig deeper (testimony to this were many pages of Rankin’s notes which remained untouched and undiscussed at the end). It was also clear the Prime Minister is a deep thinker, someone who likes to talk and a person who certainly likes to name drop.
Incidentally it seems Brown’s knowledge of where John Buchan found inspiration for his novel ‘The 39 steps’ (in Kirkcaldy) was spot on; a fact Rankin looked in disagreement with during the talk.
The Edinburgh Book Festival 2008 runs until 25th August, in Charlotte Square Gardens.