Journalists in Britain have been fascinated and sometimes appalled by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's admiration for Gertrude Himmelfarb's books and ideas. At first they seem an odd couple, a British Labour prime minister and an American neoconservative intellectual. But those who digest some of Himmelfarb's work, and think about the kind of prime minister Brown hopes to become, will eventually see the connection.
Himmelfarb is an 85-year-old historian who has spent much of her life studying the Victorians. She thinks more highly of the Victorian era than most people do -- in fact, she believes the Victorians have a lot to teach us. Recently she's been trying to demonstrate what their collective moral sense can say to the 21st century --an era, as she sees it, of "grievous moral disorder."
Himmelfarb has been married since 1942 to Irving Kristol, the founder of neoconservatism. She and Kristol were both Trotskyites as teenagers. In the late 1940s they moved right, but only to the Democratic party. Later, repelled by the 1960s counter-culture and the policies of the Democrats, they became conservatives. Their son, William, edits the right-wing Weekly Standard magazine.
Nevertheless, the London Sunday Times reports that it's Himmelfarb's books that Brown packs for holiday reading and it's her remarks that he frequently quotes in his speeches. When he was chancellor of the exchequer he invited her to his office for discussions with his staff. Recently he gave a speech on liberty, quoting Milton, Voltaire, de Tocqueville, Orwell, Churchill -- and Himmelfarb. He's writing a foreword for a British edition of a Himmelfarb book, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments. He's also promised to host a launch party for her at No. 10 Downing Street.
The Roads to Modernity is a calm, even-toned argument, in the quiet, poised style Himmelfarb readers expect. But it carries a surprising message about the relative qualities of the British and the French in the 18th century. She understands that the world believes the 18th century belongs to France -- after all, Frenchmen like Voltaire and Rousseau invented modernity and the Enlightenment, and led their country toward its epochal revolution.
Himmelfarb begs to differ. She hopes to dislodge the French from that position and replace them with what she calls the British Enlightenment, philosophers such as John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith, all of them underrated and misinterpreted figures.
She sets out to win back the 18th century from the French and revive English virtues articulated in that period. In her view the French leaders, including the Enlightenment figures, were elitists. She quotes Denis Diderot: "The common people are incredibly stupid," too idiotic to take part in the forward march of humanity. British thinkers, on the other hand, made it clear they wanted to educate all the people. They wanted the masses involved in running Britain.
She particularly wants to rehabilitate Adam Smith. Those who have studied his work know he was a man of broad social concerns who believed in generating wealth for all the people of the nations, not just the rich. But over the years socialists and liberals have depicted him as a cold-hearted theorist who, if alive today, would be a privatizing tax cutter. In truth, he looked on the rich with suspicion and wanted prosperity for everyone. His book, Moral Sentiments, has a chapter headed: Of the Corruption of Our Moral Sentiments, Which is Occasioned by This Disposition to Admire the Rich and the Great, and to Despise or Neglect Persons of Poor or Mean Condition.
This is the Smith, brought to life by Himmelfarb, who appeals to Gordon Brown. The prime minister believes governments should encourage thriving markets as a way to generate wealth and raise the economic level of everyone.
Himmelfarb wants to revive the Victorian's virtues. She finds in their writings a moral sense that the world of 2007 desperately lacks. The British did not have "philosophes," she says. They had "moral philosophers," who wrote about "compassion," "fellow-feeling" and a "natural affection for others." They unabashedly spoke the language of morality, something we now find difficult.
Obviously, that's what attracts Gordon Brown. After living in the shadow of a prime minister with a press agent's style, Brown wants to call into being a Britain that recognizes responsibilities along with rights. He imagines a new kind of Britain -- or an old one revived. He yearns for seriousness in public life. Apparently he dreams of replacing the frivolity of Tony Blair with a Neo-Victorianism designed by Gertrude Himmelfarb.