Brown's thinking is neither cosmopolitan nor sophisticated, and he is a loner with few strong links to leading intellectual contemporariesby Daniel Johnson / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
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…