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An intellectual in power
by John Lloyd 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? John Lloyd is a writer for the FT and the author of What the Media are Doing to our Politics (Constable & Robinson)
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" (this group are sometimes known as "public intellectuals"). The third is the caricature of the cultured and bookish politician who should, perhaps, have stayed with his books: the late Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher's mentor, is one modern example.
Brown is in the fourth category, sketched by Gramsci: a reading/thinking man of political action. He was fast-tracked from his Kirkcaldy grammar school to Edinburgh University at 16 because of his intellect--yet, man of action that he was, a rugby accident almost blinded him, depriving him of the sight of one eye. He took a first in history and a doctorate--while being elected as the first student rector (an honorary title) of his university. After a brief spell as an academic, and a briefer spell as a television journalist, he was elected as an MP. The seriousness and drive he displayed were typical marks of sons or daughters of the manse. I grew up with several such types, some 15 miles north of Brown, in East Fife: they were usually at or near the top of the class, and rarely in trouble. In this sense, Brown was typical. But in every other way he was extraordinary--not just in his precocious university career (though Scots students then went to university at least a year earlier than their English counterparts), but even more in his subsequent autodidactic lifestyle.
Soon after he became general secretary of the Fabian Society, Sunder Katwala went to see John Reid, the home secretary. The talk turned to Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism--still, more than any other work, seen as the intellectual underpinning of British social democracy. Katwala said that Crosland could write the book because he was an intellectual, and had the time, having temporarily lost a parliamentary seat. No, said Reid, he could write it because he was a politician.
Though Reid and Brown are said to dislike each other, the latter would agree with the former's evaluation. "Brown has a kind of contempt for pure intellectuals," says an aide--speaking, like most others interviewed for this article, on the condition that his name would not be revealed. "He has little use for those for whom ideas are everything. He reads and talks and thinks with practice in mind." (It should be said that, perhaps for these reasons, at least some intellectuals are rather dismissive of Brown, pointing to his dull speeches and "mere" bookishness. "I doubt if he is what intellectuals think of as an intellectual," one leading social scientist told me.)
On economics, Brown is mainly self-taught but can still follow even some of the most technical debates. One of his economic advisers is keen, however, to dispel the idea that his nose is always in an economic journal: "His reading is informed by history more than theory. His intellectualism is instrumental and deliberative--aimed at solving particular problems. He keeps up with economic debates through policy--for example the debates on whether inequality is more driven by technology or trade." In this area as elsewhere, his intellectual appetites are more catholic than his "tribal" political image implies. "He has really moved away from a social democratic position on the economy. He is pretty much a market liberal,"
says another adviser.
Brown has long been concerned to understand the process loosely described as globalisation, and in the past few months has been engaged in trying to chart the main movements of the world economy and society over the next decade--the time within which he might hope to continue to be able to make some difference. His favourite book on globalisation is the 2004 Why Globalization Works by the FT's Martin Wolf. Wolf's book is an exacting statement of the case for globalisation and an endorsement of its benign effects on the poor. That view is shared by another favourite Brown author, US-based economist Jagdish Bhagwati, whose strictures against the anti-globalisation movement are even harsher than Wolf's. Brown is not known to take much interest in those authors--for example David Held at the LSE--who have tried to work out a distinctively social democratic approach to globalisation.
Brown's reading is wide as well as focused: he will always read the latest "big book"--Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilisations, Timothy Garton Ash's Free World, Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy--and then, say his aides, ask fellow cabinet members if they have read it (some of this must be mischievous: he will have gathered by now that few of his colleagues share his intellectual appetite). Indeed, almost everyone in the Westminster village of a bookish inclination has a Brown anecdote. For example, Douglas Hurd went to see him a few years ago to talk about prisons. After a few minutes, the conversation turned to Robert Peel, about whom Hurd was then writing a biography (which has just been published) and in whom Brown revealed a strong and informed interest.
How does he do it? He stays up late and gets up early to read. He gets aides to "gut" books and tell him on which parts to focus--in some cases, even to write a synopsis. He often goes on the internet himself to explore subjects. And where Blair tends to ask visitors, "How are you doing?", Brown has an old habit of asking people, "What are you reading?" On one of the few occasions I have met Brown, I responded by recommending The Leopard, the great postwar Sicilian novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, which I was then re-reading. Brown grunted, and dropped the subject. I got the impression that novels were not among his priorities. (Indeed, there is little evidence of any real enthusiasm for the arts.)
Brown's largest recent foray beyond his economic and social policy brief has been his speeches and articles on Britishness. Here, he has typically cast his net so wide as to catch almost all the significant contemporary commentators, thinkers and writers on the issue. As an aide says: "For his British Council lecture [in July 2004] we brought in Linda Colley and David Cannadine, Jonathan Freedland and Roger Scruton. He read their stuff and he talked to them, and then he wrote the speech." Colley's Britons has been a particular influence. She argues that Britain is "an invented nation," united by a broadly Protestant culture, the "tonic" of recurrent war, especially with France, and by the prestige and employment opportunities of a large empire. But for all that, the patriotism which Britishness roused in the British was real, deep and popular--even (important for the Glasgow-born chancellor) in Scotland. From these and many other observations, Brown has woven a "values-based" narrative of Britain. As he put it in the 2004 lecture--"out of the tidal flows of British history... certain forces emerge again and again which make up a characteristically British set of values and qualities which, taken together, mean that there is indeed a strong and vibrant Britishness." In the course of that speech, he cited George Orwell, Douglas Bader, Andrew Marr, Neal Ascherson, Tom Nairn, Linda Colley, Norman Davies, Roger Scruton, Simon Heffer, Ferdinand Mount, Melanie Phillips, Montesquieu, David Goodhart, Herman Ousley, Bernard Crick, Henry Grattan, Matthew Arnold, Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, Adam Smith, Jonathan Sacks and Benjamin Disraeli. He probably read them all.
For his Britishness project, says an adviser, "we collected poems, songs, essays, pictures, a huge collection of documents--with the idea that we might try to interest a publisher in a coffee-table book on Britain. He's fascinated by the US's ability to ground itself in writing and image, in a way we can't."
The charge which all of this activity raises--especially in a political culture in which anti-intellectualism can be stroked to life--is that his main projects have an ersatz quality, a sense that the qualities which he commends are constructed, not lived (see Daniel Johnson, p29). David Cameron scored a hit against Brown early last year when, in reference to the Britishness rhetoric, he said, with all the easy confidence of Eton and Balliol, "we don't do flags on the lawn." Colley herself, though in broad agreement with Brown and recognising the political need to stress Britishness in a fissiparous time, says that, "I don't think it's much use going on and on about Britishness, and the British love of fair play. It might make you feel good but it doesn't get you very far."
Colley believes it would be better to stress civic values in their own right, rather than tie them to specifically British attributes. In fact, however, Brown is immersed in this idea of civic values--more precisely, the moral nature of citizenship. And though politicians are commonly said to become cynical in office, this interest appears to have become more rather than less pronounced over Brown's years of power, and is likely to blossom further once he becomes PM. According to one aide, he is thinking of occasions--speeches, public events--that will explicitly celebrate those people whose lives and work demonstrate civic morality in action: people who, in Gramsci's formulation of the "useful philosopher," really do play an active part in modifying the social situation they find about them.
In his recently published book, Courage: Eight Portraits, the new prime minister celebrates Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Cavell, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Cicely Saunders, Aung San Suu Kyi and Raoul Wallenberg--all of whom were called upon to show courage in face of great danger or injustice, and who rose, in differing ways, magnificently, to the occasion. They are presented as examples to us all: of what ordinary men and women are capable of at their best. "There are good reasons" he writes, "why I believe we continue to immortalise them... because we believe that the concept of courage says something about us and the best in us... It reminds us of the consequences of our connectedness to one another."
Connectedness is a consistent theme. Brown's sense of a threat of a moral breakdown at both the individual and the social level has led him to search through the work of thinkers who share that view--who have been mainly, in recent times, of the political right. The modern left, especially since the 1960s, has been often scornful of a morality it regarded as "bourgeois," and even while calling for extreme forms of collectivism has in practice endorsed much of the libertarian individualism of contemporary consumerism. The right, by contrast, has tended to ring the bell to warn of an approaching social leprosy; and none more cogently than two of Brown's favourite thinkers--the political scientist James Q Wilson and the philosopher Gertrude Himmelfarb--both American, and both of whom Brown has invited to give seminars at No 11 Downing Street. In The Moral Sense (1993), Wilson argues that the indulgence, cruelty and violence that is now a familiar part of life has been the fault of those who too weakly, or apologetically, maintain moral-social limits, and says that "how vigorously and persuasively we--mostly but not entirely older people--assert those limits will surely depend to some important degree on how confidently we believe in the sentiments that underlie them. Some of us have lost that confidence. The avant garde in music, art and literature mocks that confidence."
Himmelfarb, a historian of ideas, sees in the British Enlightenment a "sociology of virtue" (the Scots Enlightenment was, for a time, the most important part of the British phenomenon--a source of inspiration and of pride for the Edinburgh-educated Brown). She sees in the world of David Hume, Adam Smith and others the same kind of search as that in which Brown is said to be engaged: a quest for a robust social morality. She quotes Smith's "left-wing" Theory of Moral Sentiments--now much less well known than his "right-wing" Wealth of Nations--and argues that Smith locates altruism--social morality--in human nature itself.
The leaders of the British Enlightenment also struggled with religion, and they--though less dramatically than their rationalist French counterparts--found its more extreme claims stifling. Yet most of them did not denounce it: they rejected the claim that it was the source of morality, but not that it was the enemy of the moral sense. Adam Smith himself was a kind of deist. "The British moral philosophers," Himmelfarb said in a 2004 lecture, "Three Paths to Modernity," "were tolerant, even respectful of religion, because they were respectful of the common man, who was more likely than not to be religious." Brown--and, for that matter, the more overtly religious Blair--find themselves in both an analogous, and quite opposite, position: analogous, because they place their morality within a religious framework while seeing it as detachable from it; opposite, because the "common man" in Britain is now more likely than not to be irreligious.
So little does Brown refer to his Christianity (see Richard Cockett, p32) that most of his aides don't seem to know if he is a believer or not (in his biography, Brown's Britain, Robert Peston asserts that he is, without offering evidence). One of his aides puts it this way: "He wants to forge a progressive consensus, and that is separate from religion, though for him it is strengthened by it. The emblematic intellectual for him is Jonathan Sacks [the British chief rabbi, whose daughter Gila works for Brown as an adviser]. They are very close. Brown isn't an atheist-humanist: he's religious in a kind of Jewish way--where the important thing is the community, the religion is a kind of assumed moral framework."
In a 2005 lecture, Sacks reflected on making civil society work: "Not by appealing to interests but by appealing to altruism. Not by appealing to self-regard but by appealing to other regard. If we are to make such a society we are going to have to put the collective good back at the heart of political discourse... it is not this group or that group and who has the most persuasive voice or the largest number of votes. It is the collective good we make together."
Brown's intellectual searching is for this: "the collective good we make together." He has, ironically, done it alone in the early morning or late at night, before attempting to take it out to the real world, to (as Gramsci put it) play an active part in modifying the situation in which he finds himself. As chancellor he has often been able to think things through from first principles (and, contrary to Sacks, often with minute political calculation too). He has had commissions and study groups (Wanless, Stern and so on) to lay out the issues for him, allowing him time to make up his mind. Now, as prime minister, events will shrink that time for strategic thought. How will he respond? We will soon find out.
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