Brown is less of an intellectual "magpie" than he seems. He draws on both liberal and conservative Americans for good reasonby Geoff Mulgan / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
This is the fourth 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 Daniel Johnson on Brown the unsophisticated bookworm Richard Cockett on the question of Brown’s religious faith Kamran Nazeer on Brown’s book Courage
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Intellectuals and politicians are often uncomfortable bedfellows, but it’s not surprising that they so often cross-dress, or switch sides, or that so many intellectuals feel like politicians manqué and vice versa. Plato’s ideal of the philosopher-king has never quite disappeared, re-emerging in such varied forms as Marcus Aurelius and Kim Il Sung, William Gladstone or Felipe Cardoso. Yet too close an engagement with ideas can be a disadvantage. When Michael Dukakis was seen reading a book on Swedish planning policy on the beach, this was taken as another sign that he was unsuited for high office.
Gordon Brown is not a philosopher-king. But more than any of his recent predecessors, he will be a prime minister who is comfortable with ideas, graced with a PhD, and at home in libraries.
I worked as his adviser in the early 1990s and saw at first hand his appetite for argument and ideas, and his seriousness as a reader. Most politicians scan books for an idea or two; some never get past the back cover. Gordon Brown actually reads them. This first became apparent to me when in 1991 I arranged for him to meet the business guru Michael Porter. Porter had just published a weighty book on the competitiveness of nations; it seemed relevant to Labour’s industrial policy, which was taking shape around industry clusters, technology transfer and the potential role of regional development agencies. As Brown commented in detail on the ceramics industries of northern Italy and machine tool industries in Germany, it gradually dawned on me that he knew more about the book’s detail than the author. Porter was fine on the broad brush, but vague when the discussion turned to real examples. (The mystery was explained by the book’s acknowledgements, which mentioned some 50 researchers who had helped to write it.)
Brown’s seriousness as a reader is matched by the seriousness of his attempts to synthesise a consistent political position, including speeches and essays on the role of the state and the…