The words of a Syrian girl as she explained, in a letter to Gordon Brown, how her family has been forced to leave Homs were desperate. "Everything is lost. I feel like I should show you so you will believe me," she wrote of her school bombed and her hopes of the world coming to her rescue abandoned. This teenager had written to the former Prime Minister in his role as UN envoy for global education, and Mr Brown read out the letter to the House of Commons. The girl was a chess champion, a youth-group leader and a singer in her church choir. Hers is poignant individual story illustrating one of the planet's most pressing problems. Except that nobody was listening.
The chamber was nearly empty when the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath rose to his feet last Thursday. And there was barely a mention of the content of his moving speech in the next day’s newspapers, and no coverage on TV. Instead, Mr Brown’s appearance triggered a round of sneering on Twitter, in the papers and even an item on the BBC’s Daily Politics asking whether he should just give up as an MP, given that he hardly ever appears in Parliament.
MPs, journalists and bloggers piled in, ridiculing the former PM for speaking to an empty chamber – look how hated he is, they all effectively said, nobody wants to hear what he has to say. At one point during Mr Brown’s speech, the Tory whip, Greg Hands, even interrupted him to call for the House to be adjourned. It was as if the entire Westminster establishment had become collectively deaf to what Mr Brown was saying out of sheer loathing for the man himself.
What have we come to when a former Prime Minister is treated in this way? Where is the respect for a holder of that office? It is true that Mr Brown was often accused of being a bully – as Chancellor and Prime Minister he was obsessive, demanding and he shouted at his staff. But, as he was then, in his post-Downing Street life he is passionate about education and social justice. He has made it his mission to fight for funding for the education of Syrian refugees. Another battle he has joined is the one to keep Scotland in the UK – his latest speech was on the subject this week, warning that Scottish pensioners would lose out under independence.
On these issues, Brown’s is an authentic voice. Mr Brown is more respected and admired in Scotland than David Cameron, George Osborne and arguably even Alistair Darling. A poll yesterday showed that 59 per cent of people believe that he is a help, rather than a hindrance, to the “Better Together” campaign. Those who jeer at Mr Brown for not making many appearances in Parliament are the same people who would like Scotland to remain in the UK. Surely it doesn’t take much to work out that Mr Brown remaining an MP gives him a platform to fight for this cause?
In any case, Mr Brown has not been entirely absent from Parliament. He has asked 24 Parliamentary Questions in the past year and has spoken in the chamber repeatedly on the issue of radiation in Dalgety Bay, which affects his constituents. Yes, he does not turn up every week to PMQs, but then why would he? John Major carried on as an MP for a whole Parliament after losing office, while Margaret Thatcher did two more years – and neither made regular appearances in the House. Then there are his children, the younger of whom, seven-year-old Fraser, has cystic fibrosis. As someone who had a relative with this disease, I know how draining this is on a family, with visits to hospital and daily physiotherapy.
Mr Brown’s decision to remain an MP is presumably driven by the belief that it brings him influence on his various missions. He should continue, if only for the sake of one Syrian girl.