Johann Hari: Brown has lost touch with his core instincts

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In British politics, the colour scheme has shifted. Brown has turned to black, black, black. This summer, while floods in Yorkshire, mass murder plots in London, and disease in the countryside sloshed all around us, Gordon Brown was a sober pharmacist dispensing Xanax to the nation. But during the conference season, he offered little – and the policy initiative was ceded to the Tories, who are filling it with ugly right-wing proposals that Labour has ended up chasing after. Tax cuts for the top six per cent by whittling down inheritance tax? Done. Redistribution of wealth away from single mums to married couples? On its way.

If this continues, the political agenda will shift even further to the right. Almost unnoticed, Cameron has committed his party to introducing the "workfare" proposals championed in the US by Newt Gingrich's Republicans. These involve forcing the unemployed into taking any job going, no matter how inappropriate. For single mothers I've met, it has meant being forced to leave home at 6am for two-hour bus journeys to work and not getting home until 8pm, barely ever seeing their kids. These policies have never been tested in an economic downturn, when they would become even more brutal.

The slow political death of the Mingers contains a hidden moral for Gordon Brown. Ming Campbell's supposed flaws – his age, his recent illness – weren't insurmountable. But he made a crucial mistake. He didn't push a political agenda of his own. He watched events, and commented on them, in a sober, intelligent way. And in politics, if you aren't setting the agenda, the agenda will set you – and it won't be on your terms, but those of your enemies.

A Liberal Democrat leader has the power to force one or two issues on to the political agenda if he simply won't shut up about them at PM's Questions, in interviews, in speeches, and in dramatic photo ops. Paddy Ashdown did by advocating ground troops in the Balkans. But Ming didn't choose any. He could have.

Imagine if he had gone, once a month, to Afghanistan and Iraq – not to meet troops on a remote base, but beyond the Green Zone, to meet ordinary Afghans and Iraqis. Meet the female teachers we promised to protect, who now find landmines in their playgrounds planted by a resurgent Taliban. Meet the Iraqis huddled in refugee camps after they have been ethnically cleansed by Islamic fundamentalists from their neighbourhoods. Meet the families of civilians gunned down by the private armies employed by the US State Department. Some journalists go; he could have too.

Who would have been talking about Ming's age then? How shamed would the journalists who, as Ming put it in his exit interview, "write articles about what kind of socks I wear" have been?

But without this, Ming ended up defined by a trite media treating politics like The X-Factor for ugly people. To prevent this fate for Labour, Brown needs to start rolling out ambitious plans of his own that will make the political weather – and he has to choose issues he believes in. Brown's defence of the inheritance tax cuts and other Tory measures has been so unconvincing because he obviously doesn't mean it.

This is an intelligent man who went into politics because he was appalled by child poverty. It's time to let Brown be Brown.

What would that look like? It's revealing to turn to two of Brown's intellectual influences: Gertrude Himmelfarb and Adam Smith. Usually these names make left-wingers panic: Himmelfarb is an openly neoconservative historian, and Smith is an 18th-century philosopher-economist usually championed by the hard right. But actually, it is the best side of Brown that is drawn to them.

There is only one book of Himmelfarb's that influences Brown. It's called The Roads to Modernity: the British, French and American Enlightenments, and it is an ambitious re-reading of the history of the 18th-century awakening of the human mind. She argues that while the French Enlightenment was defined by an arid and abstract concept of reason, the British Enlightenment was very different. It was shaped by the belief that even before people use their reason, they feel compassion for their fellow human beings.

For her, the Enlightenment was about realising that "the social virtues – compassion, benevolence, sympathy" – are innate to human beings. Man is not the dessicated calculating machine imagined by market fundamentalists; we naturally care about other people, as an end in itself. (Of course, Himmelfarb believes this natural benevolence can be expressed only through private charity and workhouses, while Brown believes in using the state and tax credits too.)

Neuroscientists are increasingly proving that this is true. At the US National Institutes of Health, a group was recently wired up to brain monitors and given an imaginary scenario where they could keep $100 for themselves, or give it to somebody in need. When they gave it away, the part of the brain that lights up in response to food and sex had an electrical storm of pleasure. Altruism is basic to our brains, hard-wired and inherently pleasing. The British Enlightenment thinkers were right.

And one of them is that other famous son of Kirkcaldy, Adam Smith. Today, Smith is usually presented as a poster-boy for privatisation and tax cuts. Actually, the hard-right Adam Smith Institute should be reported to the Trading Standards Authority. Smith's book Moral Sentiments contains a chapter entitled: 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.

Smith talks about "the bad effects of high profits" among the super-rich. He was in favour of progressive taxation, so that "the indolence and vanity of the rich is made to contribute in a very easy manner to the relief of the poor". This is the Smith Brown has always been drawn to: one who knows that thriving markets are an amazing tool to generate wealth, but also that they also have moral limits.

Brown needs to rediscover these core instincts, and appeal not just to our self-interest but to our altruism. The idea that this would be "electoral suicide" or a return to Bennite Old Labour folly is a mistake. The latest YouGov poll found that 85 per cent of the British people think this country is too unequal.

There are all sorts of programmes he could fight for to activate this altruistic impulse. What about a campaign to boost investment in our old people's homes, to ensure that the generation that saved the world from fascism does not die festering in their own shit? How about a huge programme of rehabilitation in women's prisons? Why not explain why the Government's child poverty targets are so important by going to the worst estates and the dampest, mouldiest council flats, and meeting the kids developing asthma as a result, and the children sleeping in bathrooms and kitchens?

These would be programmes that Brown believes in. These would be programmes that make him come alive. Because, at the moment, chasing after a stale and nasty Tory agenda, he is doomed to turn to wood and lose.