Intensive study has made Gordon Brown into one of the best-read politicians of recent times. But what is his intellectual formation and style? And how will they inform his premiership?by John Lloyd / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
This is the first article in a six-piece symposium on Gordon Brown as intellectual. Other articles include: Iain McLean on other intellectual prime ministers throughout history Daniel Johnson on Brown the unsophisticated bookworm 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 Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect’s new blog
In an essay in The Red Paper on Scotland, a 1975 collection that he edited, Gordon Brown revealed a youthful admiration for Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist leader of the 1920s. Such an admiration was common among leftist intellectuals at the time, including those who, like Brown, always stayed on the democratic side of socialism. Gramsci was seen as a forerunner of the acceptable, even pluralist, face of communism then being promoted by the Italian and Spanish communist parties, which offered a bridge between the so-called revolutionary and the revisionist socialists—the former still strong in the Scots labour movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Much of Brown’s admiration for Gramsci has passed away—as has that for James Maxton, who inspired Brown’s only proper book (based on his PhD) and whose career in “Red Clydeside” agitation in the early 20th century was also suspended between the revolutionary and democratic strains of socialism. But in one respect, Gramsci still provides a kind of motto for Brown’s thought and practice. In The Modern Prince, he wrote that, “man can affect his own development and that of his surroundings only so far as he has a clear view of what the possibilities of action open to him are. To do this he has to understand the historical situation in which he finds himself: and once he does this, then he can play an active part in modifying that situation. The man of action is the true philosopher: and the philosopher must of necessity be a man of action.”
It is in the Gramscian sense that Brown is an intellectual. It is important to distinguish this type from the three most common contemporary definitions. The first is the professional intellectual: an academic whose work is likely to be highly specialised and based around teaching and peer-reviewed research. The second is the French model of the politico-philosophico-sociologico-polymath—men like Foucault or Derrida who, as Mark Lilla put it, “enter into public life not as rulers but as teachers, orators, poets”…