Brown's moral compass

The man likely to be the next prime minister is as concerned with the "moralisation" of Britain as i

Gordon Brown hangs out with a dodgy crowd, bibliographically speaking. After his love-in with Jim Wallis, the pro-life evangelical Christian author of God's Politics, Brown has fallen for Gertrude Himmelfarb, Queen Bee of US conservative intellectuals and cheerleader for the Bush administration. She diagnoses the west as suffering from a "grievous moral disorder", for which "strenuous moral purgatives and rest oratives" are prescribed.

The Chancellor likes to parade both the depth and range of his reading: his speeches are littered with quotes from, or references to, Adam Smith, David Hume, T H Green, John F Kennedy, Milton, William Hazlitt, George Orwell and Voltaire - but also from an eclectic group of contemporary writers (mostly historians) including Linda Colley, Norman Davies, Roger Scruton and Ferdinand Mount. But his attraction to Himmelfarb's thesis in The Roads to Modernity: the British, French and American enlightenments is no fad.

Himmelfarb's primary objective in the book - which Brown is reported to believe "one of the most important in years" - is the rehabilitation of the British enlightenment, one of the leitmotifs of Brown's thinking. His attraction to Himmelfarb tells us a great deal about Brown and the kind of prime minister he might make. Above all, it vividly demonstrates the value he attaches to the moral basis of our economy, society and national identity: it is no coincidence that another of his favoured conservative offerings, by James Q Wilson, is The Moral Sense.

Although typically it is Blair who is seen as the moraliser of the new Labour duopoly, it is actually Brown who has made - or, less charitably, is attempting to make - the deepest connection between politics and morality. He is convinced that moral rejuvenation is a necessary ingredient of his objectives in areas such as economic progress, international development and welfare reform; but this conviction has mostly been expressed sotto voce. He has not been, to borrow Stefan Collini's description of the great 19th-century political figures, a "public moralist". Once in No 10, though, he will have to put his cards on the table.

Both Brown and Himmelfarb cast the figure of Adam Smith in a leading role. Few can be as pleased as the Chancellor that the famous economist, also from Kirkcaldy, is to appear on the £20 note. Brown has consistently argued that the Smith of the laissez-faire and "invisible hand" is a caricature, and that The Wealth of Nations must be read alongside his earlier The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The most often-repeated quote in Brown's speeches is Smith's dismissal of the ideal of "all for ourselves and nothing for other people" as a "vile maxim". Himmelfarb shows how Smith recognised in his "political-cum-moral economy" the need for "benevolence", "compassion" and "sympathy".

Himmelfarb praises the social sensitivities of the "moral philosophers" of the British enlightenment in contrast to the astute, reason-obsessed philosophes driving the doomed French version. "The British moral philosophy," she writes, "was reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more enlightened future."

Shared needs

The restoration of a home-grown enlightenment has been on Brown's to-do list for a long time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has shifted the location of the home along the way. A decade ago he spoke of the "Scottish enlightenment" - today, it is a "British" one. In a speech given at the end of the last year, Brown described "a golden thread running through British history, of the individual standing firm against tyranny and then of the individual participating in their society. It is a thread that runs from that long-ago day in Runnymede in 1215 and on to the Bill of Rights in 1689 to not just one but four great Reform Acts within less than a hundred years." This is the reformist, progressive, British enlightenment tradition that Brown badly wants to resuscitate - not least to give more coherence to the very idea of "Britishness".

But back in 1999, he told the Church of Scotland General Assembly that there was an idea of a "community bound together as citizens with shared needs, mutual responsibilities and linked destinies" running like "a golden thread through Scottish history, from . . . the first Book of Discipline in 1560, to the . . . National Covenant of 1638 to the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 . . ."

The reformist, civic qualities of the British enlightenment were brilliantly highlighted by Roy Porter (in The Enlightenment) six years ago; but perhaps the Americophile Brown needed to hear it in a New York accent. Himmelfarb's claim, in fact, is that while we Brits are squandering our enlightenment legacy, the US has picked up the baton. And this is where she is on slippery ground: we can only hope that Brown stopped reading at page 146, where her acute analysis of a chapter in the history of British thought ends and is succeeded by a rancid, thoughtless attack on the French revolution and a chapter of self-congratulatory guff about her own nation. Brown has a weak enough spot for the US already. (In his collected speeches, there are 88 positive references to the US, compared to 98 in total for Europe, many of which are disparaging. Tony Crosland gets a couple of mentions; the Kennedy brothers get seven.)

Himmelfarb is right that the "social virtues" underpinned British enlightenment thinking. She is wrong to claim that they are fuelling American progress. We cannot know what Adam Smith, David Hume or John Wesley would have made of tax cuts for the rich alongside reductions in healthcare coverage for the poor, the despoiling of the Alaskan wilderness for oil, or a society in which the share of national income taken by the richest 1 per cent has risen from 8 to 16 per cent in the past quarter-century. But I think we can guess. The British enlightenment was also one in which religious toleration and respect for tradition went hand in hand with a growing respect for liberty and thirst for knowledge. This is a dubious description of contemporary America - and the very antithesis of the America the neoconservatives are trying to create.

The truth is that where the British enlightenment is in the best shape is in the land of its birth. There has been no collapse here in "social capital" or rates of volunteering. We remain, still, a sensibly tolerant society. The Queen is a national treasure. None of which is to say that the social fabric is pristine: in a range of areas, from interpersonal trust, antisocial behaviour and falling political participation, the warning signs are flashing red. Above all, with the fracturing of our low-key "don't ask, don't tell" approach to multiculturalism, the need for a distillation of the essence of "Britishness" has become pressing.

Brown takes a historical view of this debate. For him, the values of the domestic enlightenment are not just part of British history; they are part of being British. The triptych of "liberty, duty and fair play" is a constant Brownian refrain. "We are talking about the qualities of a people," he says, "of the collective experience they have shared over time, qualities that are rooted in their geography and history." Needless to say, Brown thinks that Robert Kennedy expressed this best - although Coleridge, and even Macaulay, surely lay an earlier claim. And Brown believes that we would do better economically and socially with a "shared sense of national purpose".

A sense of ourselves

Brown laments the absence of a day of national celebration, like the American 4 July or the 14 July in France. But the absence of these dramatic anniversaries results from precisely the reforming, historically sensitive approach to progress that both he and Himmelfarb applaud. It may be that the implicit, intuitive sense of Britishness is inadequate to the conditions of the 21st century. But the question is whether we are able to codify, teach and celebrate a sense of ourselves, when Britishness has historically been an unspoken quality. And there is a genuine tension between Brown's praise of Britain's inherited liberties and his support for bans on "hostile and inflammatory" religious criticism. (As John Stuart Mill pointed out a century and a half ago, religious criticism tends by its very nature to inflame.)

But if the moral pressure which can be exerted by the state is limited, Brown believes that plenty of moral heat can be turned on the state. Like Al Gore, who says that the central challenge of our time is to "expand the limits of what is politically possible", the Chancellor has always welcomed public pressure and criticism, especially on foreign aid and debt relief. He is delighted when church groups, former pop singers and demonstrators put him under pressure to do what he is only prevented by tactical political considerations from doing in any case.

It is less clear how Brown's enlightenment morality influences his thinking on public services. On the one hand, he quotes with approval Michael Sandel's argument for "moral limits of markets". But on the other, Brown's argument for a health service that is both state-funded and state-provided is based on empirical factors such as a lack of consumer infor mation, natural monopolies and inflationary pricing mechanisms. Brown is saying that healthcare should not be left to the free market because there are technical reasons why it will fail, rather than because it is morally wrong.

The challenge for Brown comes when the "British enlightenment" values that define us conflict. He insists that "the British way is to break up centralised institutions that are too remote and insensitive and so devolve power" and is dropping heavy hints about his desire for localism. But he also says that in the NHS and other public services a "decentralised . . . means of delivery" must be "compatible with equity and efficiency". But of course it is not compatible. The whole point of decentralisation and localism is to create differences between areas, some of which will mean inequities in service provision. There is no cosy "win-win" here. And while Brown lauds the voluntary sector and personal responsibility, he also insists that only the state can "guarantee" fairness.

Brown needs to articulate a moral language for these areas of reform. There is a price to be paid for the protection of our values, our environment and our public services: and it is the job of great leaders to persuade us to pay it. The case for a better-funded, state-provided NHS, tough curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, or more assistance to the developing world, cannot be made on the grounds of economic self-interest any longer. The "pay now, buy later" message of the Stern review on climate change falls into precisely this trap, as do attempts to sell aid to Africa as a counter-terrorism policy. Political leaders need to find the courage to tell us to act on moral grounds alone.

World poverty

Both Brown and Gore have cited the example of the American people funding the Marshall Plan, to help rebuild Europe after the Second World War, to the tune of 1 per cent of national income, every year for four years. Brown believes that it was in America's interests to do so; but Gore, I think more accurately, sees it as an essentially moral act - one that must be repeated today for both the environment and world poverty.

Of course, political leaders have almost always borrowed moral language. Margaret Thatcher selected the Victorian virtues such as thrift, enterprise and self-improvement that suited her Conservative aims. Tony Blair has increasingly driven his foreign policy according to his own internal moral compass; but while an ethical foreign policy is good, it must have British, not Blairite, morality as its fuel.

Brown has a historically grounded, philosophically sensitive view of a moral economy and moral society, which he is starting to share more broadly. But he has yet to settle the genuine conflicts - the real moral dilemmas - that it presents. Is fairness a quality of society, or a delivery made by the state? Can Britishness be codified, taught and formally celebrated without violence to its evolutionary spirit? Should certain public services be provided by the state on moral grounds alone - because some things are simply not for sale - or only because of the risk of market failure? Which has priority: local provision or a nationwide assurance of equity?

These are some of the central political dilemmas of our generation. What is fascinating about Brown is that he is wrestling with them himself, as he attempts to configure not just a remodernised Labour philosophy but a remoralised one. For Brown, the big political battles are not across the despatch box - they are in his own mind.

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In his Hugo Young Memorial Lecture last year, Brown said of Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity: "She finds that while France and America both had revolutions in the name of freedom, it is Britain and British ideas that led the way into the modern world by focusing on benevolence, improvement of civic society, and the moral sense as necessary for social progress . . . The British people have consistently regarded a strong civic society as fundamental to our sense of ourselves - that moral space, a public realm in which duty constrains the pursuit of self-interest."

Himmelfarb (right) was born in1922 in Brooklyn, New York, and is Professor Emeritus of History at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where she has been based now for nearly half a century. Her research into British history has been recognised with fellowships from the Royal History Society and the British Academy.

Adam Smith

The Chancellor has worked hard to claim the Scottish philosopher and moralist for the centre-left. A pin-up for Thatcherites in the 1980s, the author of The Wealth of Nations was a great exponent of free trade and the expansion of the capitalist system. Smith's concept of the "invisible hand" suggested that individual acts of self-interest would result in the optimal allocation of a society's economic resources. This idea was crudely interpreted by right-wing economists to advocate a smaller state.

Jim Wallis

The author of God's Politics, which has captured Brown's attention, said: "It's not a matter of whether religion should influence politics, it's a matter of how." But he is not a typical American evangelical and has focused on fighting poverty in America. During the 2004 presidential race, he said: "Jesus didn't speak at all about homosexuality. There are about 12 verses in the Bible that touch on that question . . . There are thousands of verses on poverty."

David Hume

"Le bon David", as the Scottish moral philosopher was known in France, arguably had a greater impact on the direction of British philosophical thought than any other thinker. Like his good friend Adam Smith, he was a sympathy-theorist, arguing that empathy for others formed the basis of morality and not logical, rational principles.