John McTernan: Why Gordon Brown can lead from the back

David Cameron and his administration need to heed predecessor's humanitarian voice, believes John McTernan

'Not flash, just Gordon" was the slogan Saatchi coined to express how they would sell Gordon Brown to the voters. As with much advertising, it is just a wee bit too clever for its own good, but it has a kernel of truth. When Gordon was Gordon he impressed the voters and won their support. The modest grace with which he left No 10 in May was an echo of the different style he brought to government in the summer of 2007, a reminder of what might have been and of what was being lost from front-line British politics.

Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron tried to bring Brown back. When Ed Miliband threw William Hague's quote that he, the PM and the Chancellor were all "children of Thatcher", Cameron responded that this was better than being a "son of Brown". As a jibe it is unlikely to ring down the ages as a wondrous witticism, it even fails by the pretty miserable standard of the House of Commons.

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However, it prompts reflection. It's pretty clear what you mean if you call yourself a child of Thatcher - you favour the free market, a small state, privatisation, socially conservative values and are willing to tolerate high levels of unemployment and inequality.

What, though, does it mean to be the son of Brown? In an odd kind of way, that still remains open to definition. No doubt Cameron means to imply that Brown's politics were a failed mixture of high spending, centralist government, statist intervention and nannying. Yet, one can easily see that within 18 months the Brown era of high spending on health, targets to ensure quality of service and a government that fought inequality may look like a golden age.

Probably the most significant difficulty in defining the Brown legacy is that he remains an active politician who still has a seat in the Commons.

The Labour voices that are now starting to say that he should play a more significant role in Parliament are right. Seeing him mainly at Prime Minister's Questions for the last three years has blinded many to the fact that Brown is one of the great parliamentarians of his generation.

He made his reputation in debates in the house, and he remains a compelling speaker - it is noteworthy that by far his greatest moment in the election campaign was when he spoke (indeed preached) to the London Citizens' assembly. No other British politician has his ability to rouse an audience with oratory - that old-time religion.

The question, though, remains: what can he focus on? If he discusses issues that are the day-to-day business of front-benchers then he will be accused of backseat driving. Yet if he doesn't talk about the economy and social issues then the Commons will be robbed of his very real expertise.

Perhaps he should initially focus on just two areas. The first is the global economy. What he has been saying in advance of the publication of his book on the global financial crisis is very significant.

"On current trends, Europe and America face high unemployment for a decade and worsening youth unemployment to come. If the story of the coming decade is not to become 'the decline of the West' then Europe and America have to change tack, rise to the biggest challenge of all - restructuring the world economy - and equip themselves to benefit from the next great global challenge - the dramatic rise in the consumer spending power of Asia."

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Brown's greatest strength was always his ability to see and express the big picture. That's why he was able to lead the G20 economies to take action to avoid a global depression.

The shift of economic power from the north to the south and from the east to the west is the great economic story of our time. The comparative economic advantage that Europe has enjoyed for nearly two centuries is over. The need to rise to this challenge, to work smarter as well as harder, is one of the greatest demands of our time.

Government must lead here in Britain, but this requires an international effort - across Europe, and with the United States, too. The effort required, the rethinking, the joint action, is immense - but the social cost of failing to meet this challenge would be even greater.

This is a project worthy of Brown, it is a debate he should lead from the bully pulpit of the backbenches.

Paradoxically, for a politician who is seen as a master of the dark arts of politics, Gordon Brown is a value-driven politician. All great leaders change not only their own party, but more importantly their opponents.

No-one doubts that it was Brown's personal commitment to development that led him to bind the UK to delivering the target of devoting 0.7 per cent of GDP to international aid. That target is one that Cameron had to embrace as part of his strategy of detoxifying the Tory brand. Yet this is the sole element of the coalition's international policy that is idealistic - the rest is relentlessly, and depressingly, pragmatic.

Our Prime Minister has gone to Turkey to pander to their people, pretending that European Union membership is anything more than a chimera while at a safe distance from Jerusalem to attack Israel.

He has gone to India and told that country, which is in violation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, we will sell them civil nuclear power technology. Why? Because it is a large market.

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At a safe distance from Islamabad he attacked Pakistan, one of our most important allies. Why? Not because he wanted behaviour to change, but because he wanted to flatter his Indian hosts.

This shameless mercantilism is a betrayal of Britain's role and status in the world.

Who better to denounce it than the son of a preacher man. Brown's sonorous Scottish tones should be excoriating the value-free desert that is current British foreign policy.

Above all else, Gordon Brown is a serious man. We do not have so many political thinkers that our Parliament can afford to have one of the biggest beasts silent for long.

Gordon has always been clear that the greatest honour for a politician is to serve.

Time now for him to serve his country with a final act as that truly rare thing - an informed and influential backbencher.