Not content with just running the country and declaring war on plastic bags and bottled water, the prime minister has found time to write an introduction to the UK edition of The Roads to Modernity – a book about the French, British and American enlightenments by US scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb.
Himmelfarb’s study looks at 18th century thinkers like Adam Smith who argued that self-interest was compatible with moral sentiment and paved the way for more benevolent forms of capitalism.
She also postulates that the French Age of Reason was arrogant and dogmatic, while the British Enlightenment gave rise to scepticism tempered by tolerance. But America comes off best as “it has inherited and preserved aspects of the British Enlightenment that the British themselves have discarded”.
In essence, her position is that we have lost the Victorians’ propensity to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor, which is a logical consequence of the welfare state, while compassionate conservatism in the US, maintains that particular tradition.
It is hard to imagine why Brown might want to endorse that view other than the desire to be seen as an intellectual, or that he is a secret admirer of the American right.
However, he approves of the notion that our enlightenment was defined by respectability, responsibility, decency, temperance and, of course, prudence, which he once championed. And acolytes of the left will take heart from his assertion that those attributes “have remained a dominant theme of Britishness ever since”.