Monday, March 03, 2008

Gertrude Himmelfarb's New Book and Gordon Brown's Introduction

David Runciman writes a review of Getrude Himmelfard’s new book, (here) The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments by Gertrude Himmelfarb in The Sunday Times 2 March. Perhaps because it carries a forward by Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, the review discusses his motivations.

The case Himmelfarb wants to make depends on separating out three different “Enlightenments” — the British, the French and the American. All three were founded on the principle of reason, but only one — the French — turned reason into its own religion, crushing everything else in its path. In Britain, by contrast, reason was “humanised” through the philosophy of, among others, Adam Smith, who made it clear that self-interest was compatible with moral sentiment. This “sentimental” Enlightenment produced a society of tolerant, sceptical individualists, by contrast to the dogmatic and intolerant French. Meanwhile, in America, both rationality and sympathy had to take a back seat to the pressing demands of achieving liberty from the British Crown, and building a new kind of state that could sustain that freedom….”

“The story Himmelfarb tells is a familiar one, and it contains its own share of clichés (she portrays the French philosophes as unfeeling snobs with a weakness for enlightened despotism) but she writes with real grace and her effortless prose brings the history of ideas to life. Brown, however, is less successful in trying to explain what this story might have to teach people living in Britain today. He says in his introduction that the social virtues of sympathy and benevolence that Himmelfarb identifies at the heart of British Enlightenment thinking “have remained a dominant theme of Britishness ever since”. But this entirely glosses over the lesson Himmelfarb herself draws, which is that the only society in which these virtues are now on prominent display is America. She argues that it was the American experiment with liberty that in the end allowed room for the religious impulses needed to underpin “the passion for compassion”. The Victorians may have had this passion, but during the 20th-century the British people lost it, and though Himmelfarb does not spell it out, it is clear that much of the blame in her eyes lies with the architects of the welfare state.

So what is a Labour prime minister now doing writing an introduction to an apology for such a distinctively American form of compassionate conservatism? Even by his own standards, Brown is being exceptionally disingenuous in claiming that Himmelfarb shows us what it still means to be British, given that she is really saying that what it once meant to be British now means being American. But Brown has another aim in view — to remind us that at the heart of Britishness lies a form of Scottishness, given that so much of the British Enlightenment had its origins in Scotland. He uses Himmelfarb to continue his campaign to resurrect Adam Smith as the godfather of his own version of benevolent capitalism, and he repeats verbatim a claim he made in his recent introduction to Iain McLean’s Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian: “Coming from Kirkcaldy as Smith did, I have come to understand that his Wealth of Nations was underpinned by his Theory of the Moral Sentiments, his invisible hand in the economy supported by the helping hand in civil society.”

This is not just embarrassing — when people want to know how Brown finds the time to write all this stuff, “by plagiarising himself ” is not a good answer — it is also absurd. What about those of us who don’t come from Kirkcaldy? And what about people who do live in Kirkcaldy today — are we really meant to believe that theirs is still the model of “mutual societies, craft unions, insurance and friendly societies and co-operatives and faith groups” that Brown extols as the essence of what it means to be British? Brown has taken a book that roots ideas in particular places and times and chosen to identify those ideas with quite different places and times to suit his own political purposes. It is worth asking how a prime minister finds the time to write this stuff, because he really ought to have better things to do….”

In his introduction, Brown says the social virtues “have remained a dominant theme of Britishness ever since . . . a theme that finds its best expression in the British tradition of strong voluntary associations and faith groups”. But what does he have to say of his muse’s conclusion, which approvingly cites proposals to replace welfare with workfare? Not a squeak.”

Those of us living through the Gordon Brown tenure as Prime Minister may be perplexed as to what he is really about. Writing introductions to academic books closely linked to the 18th century Enlightenment, with obligatory re-announcements of his close affinity with Adam Smith through living in Kirkcaldy (Brown was born in Glasgow), are becoming serially embarrassing, as is much of the performance of his government in recent months.

In one area Gordon Brown may have something in common with Adam Smith, who made a far more effective influencer that he would ever have made as a politician; it is not clear yet that Gordon Brown will do as well as he did when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer before taking over from Tony Blair. He has two years to reverse this growing impression.


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