July 09, 2004

Gordon Brown, Superstar

Like most American liberals, I've always liked Tony Blair. I'm not sure I'd like him as much if I were actually British, of course--it's sometimes hard to be really enthusiastic about the guy--but I think America needs a strong liberal spokesman for the war on terror and I don't know if John Kerry's up to the job. Recent revelations about Blair's treatment of the Iraq situation have dimmed my enthusiasm for him, however, and I've recently felt the need to find another British leader to admire from afar.

Now I've found a new left-of-center British politician to pull on my heartstrings (or, well, something like that): Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer (and heir apparent to Number 10 Downing Street.) British newspapers have been commenting on this erudite Brown speech to the British Council, while this Guardian article describes Brown's bookishness:

Brown evidently reads every commentator - ancient (Henry Grattan, Edmund Burke, Matthew Arnold) and modern (David Goodhart, Herman Ouseley, Neil Ascherson, Tom Nairn, David Cannadine, Simon Heffer, Ferdinand Mount, Melanie Phillips, Jonathan Sacks). He even quotes Montesquieu - and you have to do more than read Prospect for that. There should surely be an award for moulding the views of this unlikely collection (Tom, meet Melanie ...) into a coherent argument, even if the nub of it does appear to be that Britain's past is glorious and its future (under Labour) will be even more glorious.

So how does he do it? This is a man with a newish wife, a small child, a passion for football and a feud to conduct, not to mention the world's fourth largest economy to run. He even writes books - a biography of radical Labour MP James Maxton and a series of essays on his other heroes, due to be published next year. Blair's dodgy guitar-playing just can't compete.


"Gordon's a voracious reader," says one journalist who knows him well. "I haven't been in his bedroom, but I know someone who has and there are large piles of books on his and Sarah's bedside tables. It's not all heavy stuff either: he really does read big books like Norman Davies's The Isles and Philip Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles, but he loves Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus books too." "When he goes on holiday, he always takes suitcases full of books," says another associate. "Then he buys a whole load more when he's away. He speed-reads them."

Brown adores bookshops. In 1997, a fly-on-the-wall documentary showed him vacuuming the shelves of an airport bookshop (who is checking the Treasury bills?), and when in Washington he spends a good deal of time at the Georgetown branch of Barnes & Noble. At one IMF meeting, he slipped out to spend an hour at the store and became immersed in a book tracing the links between the Bundesbank and the Nazis in the 1930s. Looking up, he was surprised to find the current head of the Bundesbank peering querulously over his shoulder.

Michael White, the Guardian's political editor, recalls a discussion he had with Brown a few years ago during which Linda Colley's book cropped up. White said he had never read it. Brown said he had two copies and would send him one. White assumed that was the last he would hear of it, but a few days later the book arrived with a Treasury compliments slip tucked inside. "Brown reads proper books," says White. "He is a man of parts and was intellectually precocious - he went to university at 17 and was a national figure in Scotland by the age of 19. He is also a shy and private man, in many ways more at ease with books than with people."

Bookishness isn't synonymous with poltical leadership, of course, and Brown's shynesss could be a liability in a prime minister. But it's nice to see a politician who reads history for fun, and it's delightful to learn about a politician better known for his bookishness than for his glibness.

Semi-related Update: A new study shows that literary reading by Americans is declining dramatically. (Not that I can talk, mind you!) I wouldn't be at all surprised if something similar is happening in Britain, which would make Brown's reading habits more impressive still.

More Closely Related Update: Political Theory Daily Review has linked to this Scotsman profile of Gordon Brown.

Posted by Ed at July 9, 2004 12:39 PM
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