Gertrude Himmelfarb: Brown's guru

It is the unashamed moralism of the doyenne of US necons that appeals

Tony Blair, you will recall, was the chap with the Big Tent. Nothing so crass as that for Gordon Brown. But consider the speech he gave on liberty and the need for a new Bill of Rights earlier this month. And look at the list of sources he cited: the Magna Carta, Milton, Locke, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Macaulay, de Tocqueville, Orwell, Churchill, Green, Hobson and Tawney, Jonathan Sacks, Gertrude Himmelfarb...

Hang on a minute. Gertrude Himmelfarb? Isn't she the extraordinarily right-wing historian who has been described as "Queen Bee of US conservative intellectuals and cheerleader for the Bush administration"?

Er, yes, that's the one. And the Labour leader is not just quoting her. He's written the introduction to the British edition of her new book The Roads to Modernity: the British, French and American Enlightenments. More than that, he invited her to lead a seminar at No 11 Downing Street when he was Chancellor. And if the doyenne of American neocons feels well enough – she's 85 now – he's promised her she can have the launch party for the new volume in No 10.

Gordon has long been keen on American intellectuals. A few years back he did the intro to a book called God's Politics, by a US leftist evangelical, Jim Wallis. But then Wallis is big on fighting poverty, and though he is anti-abortion he's pro-gay rights.

Himmelfarb, by contrast, is a fully signed-up reactionary who thinks that, since the "liberated" Sixties, the West has descended into "grievous moral disorder". She has called for a return to Victorian values and a re-establishment of the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

She did start out a bit of a leftie, like Gordon. But though the Labour leader abandoned his youthful admiration for Gramsci, he has confined his rightward trend to a shift from a social democratic position on the economy to that of a market liberal. And he's still fiercely concerned about how to bring social justice to the global economy. Gertrude Himmelfarb's political trajectory, it has to be said, is longer.

She started out far further to the left. Born in 1922 in New York, into what she describes as a respectable but poor Jewish family who had emigrated from Russia just before the First World War, she was by her teenage years a Trotskyite. So was the young man she met at Brooklyn College, Irving Kristol. Their revolutionary Fourth International group, she later said with the talent for mockery which has characterised her vivid writing style, was so small that "it could have been comfortably contained in a telephone booth".

The year she graduated, 1942, she married Kristol. By the late 1940s the couple were liberal Democrats. By the 1960s, as the counterculture gained sway, they became conservatives. They moved steadily rightwards thereafter.

As an undergraduate, Himmelfarb was outstanding in three disciplines: history, economics and philosophy, a breadth of learning she was to maintain. "What I was really interested in," she has said, "although I didn't know it at the time ... was what we now call the history of ideas." She moved to the intellectual hothouse that was the University of Chicago to do a master's on Rousseau and Robespierre.

Her husband had been drafted into the US infantry in Europe. Himmelfarb moved to the UK to a fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge. She did a doctorate on the Victorian political thinker Lord "power corrupts" Acton. His combination of economic liberalism and pious Catholicism set her on a defining path.

She did it, unorthodoxly, outside institutional academia. For 15 years, while she brought up her children, she was an "independent scholar" producing respected works on Acton, Darwin, Malthus and Mill.

Though the Kristols never made any effort to give their children a political education, her husband recalled, "They learned from the people who visited us, overhearing our conversations." Their son William is now the editor of Rupert Murdoch's ultra-right magazine The Weekly Standard and chairman of the neocon think-tank Project for the New American Century. "No family has had a greater impact on today's conservatism," The New Yorker said recently, "than the Kristols".

From biographies of eminent Victorians Himmelfarb widened her reach. The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (1984) concluded that the Industrial Revolution changed the idea of what poverty was. Previously it had been a "natural, unfortunate, often tragic fact of life, but not necessarily demeaning or degrading". It became seen as "an urgent social problem" that threatened the fabric of society and must, at all costs, be abolished.

Two years later her Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians was published, disclosing that the proportion of illegitimate births to total births in England fell from 7 per cent in 1845 to less than 4 per cent by the end of the century. Victorian virtues such as hard work, discipline, thrift, self-help, self-discipline, cleanliness, chastity, fidelity and charity, she concluded, were key determinants. The emphasis on personal responsibility, she said, meant there was less need for involvement by the state. Her reach widened further. The New History and the Old (1987) launched a scathing attack of historians who neglected the actions of great men to focus on social and economic structures. She was particularly withering about deconstructionist historians who "liberate the study of history from the tyranny of facts".

Increasingly she extrapolated from the past to the present, writing opinion articles in The New York Times, lambasting changes to the academic curriculum, affirmative action quotas, and radical feminists.

On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (1994) argued that the anti-bourgeois bohemian culture of Bloomsbury became democratised after the Second World War with the huge expansion of higher education and the growth in material affluence. It spread rapidly along the line of least resistance. "Virtues are very hard. Vices are easy to come by. Once young people had the leisure and money to indulge themselves, it was almost inevitable that they do it." The world had gone from "relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity".

Thus she continued. The Demoralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1995) considered crime and illegitimacy statistics in England and in the US. Moral changes had created social problems, she concluded. "For Victorians, virtues were fixed and certain. When conduct fell short of those standards, it was judged in moral terms as bad, wrong or evil." But today "virtues" had been replaced by "values". Modern society, fearing to be seen as judgemental, would now only condemn behaviour as "misguided", "undesirable" or, in the worst corruption of the moral vocabulary, "inappropriate".

Crime, drug addiction, juvenile delinquency and welfare dependency rose as illegitimacy was legitimised as "an alternative mode of parenting". Teenage promiscuity was redefined as "sexually active" and encouraged by the offer of condoms. Illegitimacy rose from 5 per cent of births at the start of the 1960s. By 1980 it was 12 per cent by 1980 and by 1992 32 per cent.

Crime statistics told a similar story. The two, she suggested, were related. Modern societies incentivises bad behaviour. People on welfare often receive more in welfare payments than workers on the minimum wage. Unmarried mothers get benefits and services married mothers do not have, thus penalising marriage.

"It is this reluctance to speak the language of morality, and to apply moral ideas to social policies, that separates us from the Victorians," she said. "In Victorian England every measure of poor relief had to justify itself by showing that it would promote the moral as well as the material well-being of the poor. In recent times we have so completely rejected any kind of moral principle that we have deliberately, systematically divorced poor relief from moral sanctions and incentives. We are now confronting the consequences."

It is this unashamed moralism that appeals to Gordon Brown. It is something he finds hard to find among the modern Left which sees moral considerations rendered unnecessary by collective politics. Brown knows that, in doing that, the Left implicitly endorses the libertarian individualism of contemporary consumerism. So he is looking elsewhere for an account of what it is in human nature that makes people co-operative, and what it is in social policy that can reinforce that.

This is what Himmelfarb offers. Critics say she has a blinkered or naive view of the world, ignoring issues such as slavery and racism. They point to the paradox that the untrammelled market she endorses produces the hedonist culture promoted by the likes of Rupert Murdoch. They point out that she is better on polemic and prescription than she is on analysis.

Yet for all that she is a woman with a "moral compass", something Gordon Brown repeatedly lauds. Her latest book, which the Prime Minister is said to regard as "one of the most important in years", is critical of the Enlightenment in France as absolutist, rabid, anti-clerical and in blind thrall to Reason. In the gentler wisdom of David Hume, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, the British Enlightenment, she suggests, offers a far healthier alternative – mildly progressive, socially conservative, culturally tolerant, in which faith and reason pull in the same direction. The laissez-faire economics of The Wealth of Nations in balance with the social altruism of his The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It offers the moral sense that is essential for social progress.

All of which is well and good. We must just hope that Gordon doesn't start to believe the rest what she writes.

A Life in Brief

Born Brooklyn, New York, on 8 August 1922, the daughter of Bertha and Max Himmelfarb, a manufacturer.

Education New Utrecht High School, Brooklyn College, University of Chicago and Girton College, Cambridge.

Family Married Irving Kristol, 1942. One son, one daughter.

Career Independent scholar, 1950-1965. Professor of history at City University of New York, 1978-88. Unsuccessful candidate for the position of librarian of Congress, 1987. Received the National Humanities Medal in 2004.

She says "The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of post-modernism, relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity."

They Say "One of the greatest historians and public intellectuals of our age." Eric Cohen, editor of 'The New Atlantis'

"Naive ... intellectually slight... parochial... narrow .... silly." Alan Ryan, 'New York Review of Books'

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