Egghead on Downing Street
Britain's newest prime minister, Gordon Brown, is a dedicated reader of serious books, but intellectuals have not always fared well at 10 Downing Street.
Americans have elected as president a polio survivor and a peanut farmer, a baseball team owner and a movie actor, but Britain has now chosen a politician of an almost rarer breed: Prime Minister Gordon Brown is an intellectual.
Brown, who served as chancellor of the exchequer under Tony Blair for nearly 10 years before becoming prime minister, holds a Ph.D. in history from Edinburgh University and has written books on such topics as poverty, greed, the early history of his party, and, most recently, courage. He heads the Labor Party, but reads American neocons such as James Q. Wilson and Gertrude Himmelfarb. He can cite Harvard’s Samuel Huntington on the clash of civilizations and other theories and is on close terms with serious Christian writers. “Most politicians scan books for an idea or two,” writes Geoff Mulgan, director of Britain’s Young Foundation. “Brown actually reads them.”
Although Brown rarely talks publicly about religion, politics is, to him, about helping society act as a moral community rather than just a collection of individuals, Mulgan says. Brown’s focus on morality is often attributed to his upbringing in the Scottish church as the son of a Presbyterian minister. The new prime minister is steeped in the Bible, even as British society becomes more secular and multicultural, and he seeks out writers who go beyond the “simplicities of neoliberal individualism.” These include Americans such as Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone (2000), and Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man (1992).
“His sources of influence are very American, or to be more precise, northeast American, drawn from an academic culture where rigorous rationalist Enlightenment thought has fused with a vigorous Protestantism,” according to Mulgan. Brown’s economic views, says John Lloyd, a writer for the Financial Times, started out just to the democratic side of socialism. Today they are that of a market liberal. His favorite book on globalization endorses it.
Brown joins a formidable roster of British intellectuals at 10 Downing Street, notably Winston Churchill (1940–45, 1951–55), A. J. Balfour (1902–05), Lord Rosebery (1894–95), and W. E. Gladstone (1868–74, 1880–85, 1886, 1892–94). Not all have succeeded. Historians rank Churchill and Gladstone among the best prime ministers, writes Iain McLean, an Oxford professor of politics. Balfour and Rosebery are considered among the worst.