Intellectuals have had a mixed record in British politics. Let's hope that Gordon Brown is in the tradition of Gladstone rather than of Balfourby Iain McLean / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
This is the second article in a six-piece symposium on Gordon Brown as intellectual. Other articles include: John Lloyd on an intellectual in power 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
If we define an intellectual as “author of at least one scholarly book,” the last intellectual to be prime minister was AJ Balfour (1902-05; author of A Defence of Philosophic Doubt). The one before was Lord Rosebery (1894-95; author of Napoleon: the Last Phase), and before him WE Gladstone (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, 1892-94; author of Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age).
Balfour and Rosebery were among the worst prime ministers since 1832. Gladstone was one of the best. So being an intellectual is neither necessary nor sufficient for greatness. But most lists of great and awful prime ministers suggest some qualities that matter. Churchill, Peel, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Asquith and Disraeli share courage, coolness and decisiveness.
Where does intellect come in? All the great PMs were intellectuals in at least one sense—they all had a grasp of the options available, and of the consequences of actions. Peel, Disraeli and Lloyd George were all experts in the art of political manipulation. Each produced at least one utterly startling rabbit out of the political hat—repeal of the Corn Laws, the Second Reform Act, and the Irish treaty of 1921. These feats needed intellect as well as courage.
Intellect can be disabling too. Roy Jenkins describes the contrast between Balfour and his successor Bonar Law: “Where Balfour was detached, equivocal and complex, Law was committed, partisan and simple… Where Balfour could always see a large part of his opponent’s case, Law could only see the more salient features of his own. As a result, where Balfour hesitated, Law struck.” But Law’s strikes between 1911 and 1914 have contributed substantially to the long tragedy of Ulster.
Jenkins himself was the most eminent intellectual in modern politics. His history books—Mr Balfour’s Poodle, just quoted; Asquith; Dilke—are getting better and better as they age, like claret. The blackcurrant note of Jenkins’s love of his subjects, and the fierce tannin of his portrayals of Queen Victoria, Bonar Law and George V are beautifully balanced. Jenkins saw what was great…