Following his thought-provoking talk in memory of motor-neurone disease campaigner and University of Edinburgh alumnus, Gordon Aikman, to mark the official opening of the Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre, former News Editor of The Student and Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, sat down with his old student newspaper to discuss his life and the university.
First of all, thank you for the interview and giving us a chance to speak to you. We were just wondering, what appealed to you about coming back and speaking at this event?
Well, first of all, for Gordon Aikman, who was an incredible campaigner, not just for the disabled, but in every campaign he mounted. There are some stories I should have told there, this evening, but I mean he actually mounted a campaign to open up freedom of information in Scotland, and Alex Salmond complained to him that he was responsible for 14 per cent of all the freedom of information requests throughout the whole of Scotland and he was called ‘Mr 14 per cent’ for a time. So he did a huge number of things, and the idea that you should name the lecture theatre after him, you know, considering all the famous names that are around the square, is actually a superb decision. I do praise all these people that are responsible for it, including the [Edinburgh University] Students’ Association that led the campaign.
How has the university changed since you were here?
It’s bigger. It’s very successful. It’s even more international. It’s got a reputation in every single continent of the world that I think it deserves for being both cosmopolitan and yet it’s still rooted in the city of Edinburgh and I think that’s really important that it’s not an ivory tower university, it’s actually rooted in the city itself and part of the city’s life.
And what effect did your university experiences have on your career?
I don’t know what to say on that. I mean, I got a degree, I got a PhD. I wasn’t in the library as much as I should have been, but I did study for my degrees. And I think the university gave people at that time, and that’s the 1970s, when I finished, a very good grounding for the future. I think it’s very important that you’re learning how to learn all the time, and not just learning particular pieces of information, and I think Edinburgh has got a good reputation for its teaching methods, learning how to learn.
On that, with the increased tuition fees, has higher education become more of a means to an end than a pursuit of the love of learning?
I’ve always favoured a different form of paying for higher education, and I couldn’t persuade my colleagues when we were in government, but we tried to move towards what is effectively a graduate tax. I don’t think that people should be burdened with debt, and I think what we tried to do in 2008 was to move the system so that you didn’t start paying anything back until you’d earned a certain income, and that you did so for a number of years at an interest rate that was relatively low. I think what’s happened since 2010 is that tuition fees have gone up in England, but generally speaking, the repayments in England are at very high interest rates. I think as far as Scotland is concerned, the maintenance grants are not good enough for people who come from low income backgrounds.
So, if you could change one thing about politics, what do you think it would be?
I think we need to find a forum for honest debate, and I think I was asked earlier about the social media, and it does encourage people who’ve got extreme views to look representative when they’re not. I think part of the problem we’ve got over Brexit and over nationalism and over what I was talking about this evening, universal credit in the welfare state, and even over issues like tuition fees, is there’s not a reasoned enough debate taking place where people can put their views, they can be tested against the evidence, people can then say that they disagree or agree, but they do so on the basis of a rational examination of all the evidence and we need a form for that in Britain. You feel that Brexit was driven by people who wanted to claim things that never turned out to be the case.
On that, do you think that media has more of a responsibility to call politicians to account?
Definitely, definitely. I do think that I’ve always wanted a free press, having been the editor of The Student and having been, for a time, doing some journalism, I always believed that you have to get the facts, you have to get the information, you have to get the evidence, and newspapers are crucial for that. And if newspapers become propaganda sheets they’re not serving their purpose, which is to allow a reasoned debate to take place in the country based on information and evidence, and I think The Student, when I was editor, we wanted to get the facts out to people and I think The Student now, I can see, is about getting the facts out to people.
Is there an article that you were particularly proud of at The Student?
I remember winning a prize for writing about the ship building sit-in in the Clyde in the UCS citizen sit-in. Jimmy Reed was the guy who ran it and he was a friend of mine, and we went to Glasgow and we did a feature on that sit-in and what was actually happening, and because it won prizes I now remember it.
And finally, if you could give advice to your student self, what would it be?
I think, you’ve got to think always of the bigger picture. You can get buried in the detail, you can get lost in minutiae and I think when you look at all the debates that are taking place in our country at the moment, whether it’s Brexit or whether it’s independence or whether it’s about individual issues, sometimes we get buried in the detail and we forget the bigger picture. And what I was trying to do this evening in saying, just think of the world as it’s going to develop in the future. The idea that we should retreat into our own silence and forget an interdependent world needs cooperation between countries. If we forget that then we forget what’s going to make the world work in the future and we’ll not be able to deal with the big problems, these are global problems we’ve got, they need global solutions.
Image: Neil Hanna