Just a bookworm?

Brown's thinking is neither cosmopolitan nor sophisticated, and he is a loner with few strong links to leading intellectual contemporaries
July 27, 2007
This is the third article in a six-piece symposium on Gordon Brown as intellectual. Other articles include:
John Lloyd on an intellectual in power
Iain McLean on other intellectual prime ministers throughout history
Geoff Mulgan on the American inspiration behind Brown's thinking
Richard Cockett on the question of Brown's religious faith
Kamran Nazeer on Brown's book Courage

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A prime minister does not have to be a public intellectual, but he should be a private one, in the sense of a cultivated individual who thinks for himself. Any public figure ought to possess what Aquinas, after Aristotle, called the intellectual virtues: prudence, art, wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Gordon Brown talks a lot about prudence. Yet he has rarely practised what he preaches. The House of Commons, almost an intellectual-free zone these days, has been a bad influence. Having renounced his precocious academic career for politics, Brown has preserved the airs of an intellectual aristocrat without the salutary criticism of his peers.

By the standards of all but the most recent British politicians, Brown's bookish tastes are nothing out of the ordinary. Victorian men of letters routinely went into politics: Gladstone, who had mastered the entire culture of his time, or Disraeli, whose novels are still read for their literary merit. The last of these scholar-statesmen was Churchill, who actually won the Nobel prize for literature. Among Labour leaders, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson and Michael Foot were intellectuals, though only the last rejoiced in the appellation. On the strength of Brown's summer reading list (Sebastian Faulks, Thomas Keneally, JK Rowling), a Roy Jenkins or a Keith Joseph would have thought him distinctly middlebrow. His reading, though omnivorous, is lacking in cosmopolitan culture. True, Brown says he reads Camus and Sartre for pleasure. The intellectuals of the previous generation, though, would have read them in the original language, and other, more daunting, foreign authors too. Dick Crossman made his name with a book on Plato; Enoch Powell was the youngest professor of ancient Greek since Nietzsche. By comparison, Brown's frame of reference is provincial. Unlike his intellectual superiors, however, he has climbed the greasy pole to the very top.

Gordon Brown is an intellectual of a very Scottish type. This figure is most often identified as a "dominie" (schoolmaster or minister) or a "son of the manse" (which Brown is). He is overbearingly didactic, in part to disguise his own self-conscious autodidacticism. He is pugnacious, even disputatious; austere, even lugubrious; and manly to the point of misogyny. After all, the archetypal Scottish intellectual was John Knox author of First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

Discreet and sober of mind: that is how the new dominie of the nation wants to be seen. We do not know what spiritual beliefs, if any, Brown professes. His silence on such matters is in contrast with Tony Blair, whose Catholic aversion to moral relativism has latterly exercised a big influence on policy. The spirit of the Reverend John Brown may look over his son's shoulder, but in ten years as chancellor there has been no attempt to halt the decline of the family values that provided him with his "moral compass." Brown takes for granted the Judeo-Christian civilisation that made him what he is, but seems blind to the threat to posterity posed by his bureaucratic brand of social democracy, which is wearing away the very foundations of that civilisation. (Latest example: the de facto legalisation of polygamy through the benefits system.)

Brown may quote Gertrude Himmelfarb or James Q Wilson, the American neoconservatives who advocate a return to Victorian values, but to what purpose? I see no evidence that he has put Himmelfarb's critique of the French (as opposed to the Anglo-Scottish or American) Enlightenment into practice. His pursuit of equality at the expense of liberty (Laura Spence), his faith in the power of the state rather than the individual (public services), his refusal to encourage virtuous conduct (marriage, independence, self-cultivation)—all this is incompatible with Himmelfarb's plea for politicians to treat the poor and the delinquent as grown-ups. Brown is closer in temperament to Robespierre, the "seagreen incorruptible," than to Himmelfarb's hero, and Brown's fellow alumnus at Kirkcaldy High, Adam Smith.

Even Brown's late discovery of patriotism has something inauthentic about it when compared with the deeply rooted love of a way of life we associate with a Churchill or even a Thatcher. Brown's Britishness has a whiff of midnight oil which vitiates its purpose as propaganda. Brown has also resolved to pursue the old Presbyterian cause of disestablishing the Church of England, beginning by renouncing the prerogative power to appoint bishops and clergy. He probably imagines that this will make the integration of British Muslims easier. If so, he is mistaken. Islamists will draw the conclusion that the Church of England is moribund, and redouble their efforts to replace it with a caliphate. Catholics and Jews see disestablishment as irrelevant to the double threat posed by radical Islam and secularism.

I recall Brown's eloquent tribute to Keynes at the launch of Robert Skidelsky's biography some years ago, and occasional remarks have given evidence of a capacious intellect. But his very self-sufficiency as a thinker has induced a certain hubristic indifference to others. Brown has formed few important relationships with leading intellectual contemporaries. And I doubt whether he would condescend to appeal for support from intellectuals, as Blair was quite ready to do in 1997. Precisely because Blair is aware of his own limitations, he values the company of intellectuals in a way that Brown does not. It is more important for a prime minister to know how to make use of intellectuals than to be one.

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