News that Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister, is expected to step down as a member of parliament next year, has already set the political obituarists duelling. His career and legacy were always likely to divide, not least because of his many and varied incarnations.
There was the Gordon Brown of the early 1990s, one of the most brilliant opposition politicians in living memory, who regularly used to take down hapless Conservative ministers. There was the co-architect of New Labour, which was, depending on where you stood, either a betrayal of everything the party had ever stood for or a brilliant strategy to ensure continuing electoral success. Then, in government, the “Iron Chancellor” whose grip on spending earned Labour a reputation for being able to take care of the public finances that had long eluded it, but who also allowed overly lax supervision of the banking sector to worsen the effect of the 2007-08 financial crisis, according to critics.
And then there was the high-minded, principled Gordon Brown, a man of such personal austerity that he served supermarket champagne at his wedding reception, and of such admirable privacy that the first sight most had of his two young children was when he and his family left Downing Street after he lost the last general election.
This same character, however, contained a bitterness at his perceived betrayal by Tony Blair that spread like poison through successive Labour governments, and was said to be given to such rages that new staff were warned to watch out for “flying Nokias”.
While no one has accused Mr Brown of colluding in their actions, he certainly employed staff who so lacked the “moral compass” he talked of possessing that they were unafraid to resort to the dirtiest of tricks to undermine his opponents. And if the verdict of history is kinder to his brief tenure as prime minister, that is partly because contemporary judgements were so caustic that they could only be revised upwards.
In one area, though, opinions are less likely to diverge. For in his post-prime ministerial career, Mr Brown has so far provided an example we can only hope other former leaders will follow. He has thrown himself wholeheartedly into causes in which he can use his stature to make a difference, becoming the UN Special Envoy for Global Education in 2012, chairing an initiative of the World Economic Forum and serving as Distinguished Global Leader in Residence at New York University, among other roles.
But it is on education, and on the accompanying and overlapping field of empowering young women, that he has been most focused, giving speeches and promoting initiatives around the world. Yes, he is well remunerated for public speaking, but the fees all go to the Office of Gordon & Sarah Brown, whose website states that “all the money received by the Office... goes either directly to charities... or to support other charitable and public service projects”.
This stands in stark contrast to the activities of his predecessor, Tony Blair. Mr Blair may well do much pro bono work, but his relentless pursuit of money – he recently denied having £100 million, saying he had not even one fifth of that, despite owning properties worth at least £30 million – and his cosying up to Kazakhstan has, as The Guardian’s commentator Michael White put it this week, “sullied” his “career as an elder statesman, international do-gooder and charity sponsor”.
As premiers and presidents tend to be younger and live longer, the uses they make of their post-office lives is going to be of increasing importance.
Those who led were often much older in the past. At 73, Ronald Reagan famously made a virtue of his age during the 1984 US presidential election, quipping: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Francois Mitterrand of France died less than a year after leaving office in 1995, aged 79, with little time to do anything of note.
Bill Clinton, on the other hand, left office while only 54, and if David Cameron loses next year’s general election in Britain, his political career will be over when he is only 48.
A comparison could be made between Mr Brown and the former US president Jimmy Carter. Both could well have won re-election. In Mr Brown’s case, if he had called for polls early in his premiership. In Mr Carter’s, had the disaster of the Tehran embassy siege not happened. Their achievements in office have been overshadowed by impressions, fair or not, of weak leadership.
But Mr Carter went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and Mr Brown has so far been showing himself as the decent, honourable man those of us who wished he’d become Labour leader instead of Mr Blair always believed him to be.
Leaders who spend their retirements ostentatiously feathering their own nests encourage the belief that politicians are only out for themselves. Those who continue in public service, like Mr Brown, renew faith in the idea that politics can be a noble calling. For this at least, Gordon Brown will deserve to be remembered with a great deal of credit.
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and editor based in Doha and Kuala Lumpur