Is Britain’s new prime minister an intellectual? In a country where the word usually signifies a pedantic other-worldliness, Gordon Brown is not rushing to apply it to himself. And certainly on some criteria, the tag does not really fit. He is not publicly eloquent, and he is both too “magpieish” about where he collects ideas from and too much of a loner for there to be a Brownite school of thought. But he is clever, extremely well read and interested in ideas in a way that few, if any, prime ministers have been in the past 100 years. (In any case, three years ago Prospect readers voted him Britain’s 25th top public intellectual.)
Apart from all the obvious influences—the Scottish Enlightenment, social democracy, his Church of Scotland upbringing—Brown is perhaps best identified as a member of that rather large group of former left-wing intellectuals. He still holds to some of the core beliefs of moderate social democracy, and still believes in the power of knowledge and ideas to change the world for the better. But in everything from economics to personal morality, Brown is now just as comfortable with thinkers of the centre and even the right (see Geoff Mulgan inside on the influence of American conservative James Q Wilson). Some former leftist intellectuals end up believing in very little; Brown at least has had the moral earnestness and social Christianity of his upbringing to fall back on (although, as John Lloyd points out, no one really knows whether Brown is a believing Christian or not).
If that combination of beliefs and values sounds similar to Tony Blair’s, Brown’s prime ministerial style will be very different. Prepare for more government by commissions and special inquiries, though don’t expect their findings to challenge the new PM’s views. Brown’s strategic, rigorous turn of mind has been well suited to the treasury. Success at No 10, with its demands of greater speed and range of decision-making, requires instinct and judgement as much as intellect. But Brown may have a bigger problem. In the short term, there will certainly be a Brown bounce—some of the current hostility to Labour is skin-deep and Blair-related. But in the longer term, there must be a question over whether Brown’s rather old-fashioned Scottish high-mindedness can chime sufficiently with the glib materialism of much of modern Britain. Can Brown prevail in a country where, as Robert Colls puts it…