Thursday, 30 July 2009

Brown: "Enlightenment politician in age of emotion"

Guest post by Paul Richards

Gertrude Himmelfarb is hardly a household name; unless the household is Number 10 Downing Street.

Gordon Brown's enduring fascination with this 87-year-old American social historian and writer on Darwin, Burke and J S Mill is perplexing. She is a right-wing social authoritarian, admirer of Victorian values, and once described as the “Queen Bee of US conservative intellectuals and cheerleader for the Bush administration.” She wrote: “The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of post-modernism, relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity.” You can't imagine Gordon Brown saying that to the Labour Party conference this autumn.

They make strange intellectual bedfellows, but to understand Brown, you have to understand Himmelfarb. Her writings, especially on the Enlightenment, the pivotal period of the 18th century when reason and rationality triumphed over superstition and religion, provide some useful clues to decoding Brown's motivations, values and weltanschauung.

Brown's admiration of Himmelfarb was fostered in the 1970s, when he was an earnest undergraduate, and remained with him as a politics lecturer at Glasgow College of Technology. In 2008 he wrote: “I have long admired Gertrude Himmelfarb's historical work, in particular her love of the history of ideas, and her work has stayed with me ever since I was a history student at Edinburgh University.”

By the time Brown tackled her works on the course reading list in 1972, Himmelfarb was an established academic. She had published a study of Lord Acton in 1952, Darwin in 1959, and her Victorian Minds: A Study of Intellectuals in Crisis and Ideologies in Transition appeared in 1968. When students around the world were devouring Marx, Mao, Luxemburg and Gramsci and lobbing cobblestones at riot police, Himmelfarb produced a book about Malthus, Bentham, Mill and Bagehot.

Gordon Brown is Britain's first proper intellectual Prime Minister, since the classically trained Victorian titans such as Gladstone and Palmerston. Others have enjoyed reading, both for pleasure and for elucidation. Blair read political histories and biographies to provide insights into contemporary events. He dipped into the Qur'an, and reads the Bible every night before sleep. Major enjoyed his Trollope, and Thatcher her Frederick Forsyth. But Brown embraces the complexities of Bobbitt's Shield of Achilles or the historical sweep of Linda Colley's Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 like a child with a pile of superhero comics. From his teenage years onwards, Brown has been surrounded by piles of books. They dominate his holiday packing, are stacked by his bedside, and cover the surfaces of his homes. No wonder he needs a cleaner.

It is no surprise that Brown delighted in the publication of Himmelfarb's Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians or The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, like the rest of us enjoying the new Robert Harris or Sebastian Faulks.

It is Himmelfarb's work on the Enlightenment which provides the strongest clues to what makes Brown tick. When he wrote the foreword to Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity: the British, French and American Enlightenments, Brown highlighted her argument that unlike the revolutionary aspects of the Enlightenment in France and America, in Britain it was defined by social virtues which bound people together. The Enlightenment virtues Brown approvingly cites are “respectability, responsibility, decency, industriousness, prudence and temperance.” These could be the chapter headings in Brown's autobiography. They are the values encoded in his philosophical DNA, and provide the yardstick for his assessment of others. They explain his reaction to the banking crisis, the MPs' expenses scandal, and his own determination to stay in the post.

This part of Brown's intellectual make-up explains so much about his pure rationalism, his command of numbers and statistics, and his belief in the power of argument. It is lazy to attribute Brown's moral compass to being a son of the manse. Intellectually, he is a modern-day David Hume or Adam Smith. He is an Enlightenment thinker in the age of emotion.

Paul Richards is a former special advisor to Hazel Blears MP and former Chair of the Fabian Society.


Stuart White said...

'The Enlightenment virtues Brown approvingly cites are 'respectability, responsibility, decency, industriousness, prudence and temperance.'....They explain his reaction to the banking crisis, the MPs' expenses scandal....

I suspect I am not the only one to see a pretty large gap between principle and practice here.

On the one hand, we seem to be getting back to 'business as usual' with an alarming speed in the financial sector. The Brown government doesn't seem able to stand up for these virtues when its up against the banks (as opposed, say, to welfare recipients, who are much more vulnerable to having virtue regimes imposed on them).

On the other, the expenses revelations owe nothing to the government and everthing to independent journalism. The response since then has been confused and rushed, hardly prudent and temperate.

Robert said...

Well said sir , well said.