The leader's leaders

<strong>Courage: Eight Portraits</strong>

Gordon Brown <em>Bloomsbury, 288pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0

In Courage: Eight Portraits, Gordon Brown gives a nod to Profiles in Courage, the 1956 history of eight American senators that won John F Kennedy a Pulitzer Prize and established him as a serious presidential candidate. To publicly identify your heroes is akin to appearing on Desert Island Discs - you either bare your soul or try to project a carefully constructed image.

Brown has, by and large, chosen much better than JFK, whose senators tended to be privileged people who overcame the temptation to political cowardice, rather than exhibiting real bravery. Brown submits that the courageous fall into three categories: soldiers are examples of "career heroes", and the passengers on United Flight 93 became "situational heroes". It is telling that Brown's chosen eight are all in the third group - "sustained altruists" - those who "devote long periods, sometimes their entire lives, to principled causes". Indeed, many of his examples sacrificed their lives by acting on their beliefs.

Two were executed. Edith Cavell was a particularly brave British nurse who rescued countless allied soldiers behind German lines in the First World War. She was accused of espionage and shot. Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to his native Germany to oppose Hitler, for which he was hanged. Raoul Wallenberg was similarly martyred, probably in Stalin's gulags, after assisting countless Jews to freedom. While only conspiracy theorists believe that Martin Luther King was killed on the orders of the US government, a hostile FBI hounded him in life and certainly provided encouragement for any would-be assassin.

Nelson Mandela has fortunately lived into a quiet old age, but he spent nine months expecting execution for his acts of "terrorism", singing through the night before each six o'clock hanging, helping to steel other prisoners with valour. Likewise, Aung San Suu Kyi is the Mandela of a new generation, the Burmese military junta having extended her house arrest for yet another year only a couple of weeks ago.

Brown's seventh choice, Robert F Kennedy, is a strange one. Certainly, RFK supported some admirable policies before his senseless murder, but many American liberals feel that he often betrayed his principles. Some of RFK's less courageous mistakes were linked to Brown's other hero, Martin Luther King: Kennedy supported the anti-communist witch-hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name became synonymous with demagogic fear-mongering. The House Un-American Activities Committee actively investigated King's "communist links", with attorney general Robert Kennedy personally authorising FBI wiretaps.

Brown describes RFK's "ethical" break with President Johnson over Vietnam. In reality, RFK refused to confront Johnson until Eugene McCarthy exposed the incumbent president's vulnerability in the New Hampshire primary. Martin Luther King, in contrast, opposed the war much earlier, for which he was denounced as a traitor, the "Voice of Radio Hanoi".

All of Brown's subjects come from privilege, even if they are not equally famous. Many people, myself included, will never have heard of Brown's eighth subject, Cicely Saunders, a doctor who spent a lifetime dedicated to palliative care. Her inclusion is refreshing, but her sacrifice was also enabled by Roedean and Oxford.

Brown asks whether "a predestined elite . . . are uniquely capable of courage while others are not?" It is certainly easier for the privileged to walk out on the promontory of principle, just as it is easier for those with no fear of hunger to choose vegetarianism. Yet courage is surely relative, defined by the opportunities offered to each individual. One incremental improvement in the honours list has been the inclusion of people from all walks of life who, in countless ways, persist with their own acts of altruism as they struggle to feed their families. If Brown is to inspire the British people, it is important to recognise and support such low-profile courage as well - as his forthcoming account of "ordinary people in our communities", Unsung Heroes, indeed does.

JFK asked, in Portraits of Courage, whether it is necessary to agree with someone's motives to admire their bravery. Certainly, courage must be well motivated to merit hero status. Brown's "altruists" are all ultimately non-violent, focused on reconciliation rather than revenge. He reports, for example, Bill Clinton's admiration for Mandela, based on "what kind of person he turned out to be after what they did to him for 27 years".

Critics enjoy pulling down the powerful, and some will inevitably chastise Brown for his generally "easy" choices, or imply that political correctness drove him to select three women, two of whom are relatively unknown. But I found Courage to be an important insight into our next leader, and he persuades me that he is sincere about the principles he expresses.

There are various modest actions Brown could take the moment he assumes the mantle that would reflect the courage of his heroes and help persuade more people to give him the benefit of any doubts they may harbour. He could take a truly principled stand against the death penalty around the world. In dealings with the Muslim community, he could emulate Mandela's focus on reconciliation, rather than recrimination. He could raise a flag, in short, for a truly ethical British government.

Every world leader, including Brown, would do well to keep this book beside the bed, open at page 113. Martin Luther King provides the catechism that should guide any statesman: "Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' And vanity comes along and asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?'"

Clive Stafford Smith's "Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons" is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. He was voted one of the NS "Heroes of Our Time" in 2006