TOPICS: Brown faces own decisions over Europe

I once met the English philosopher Bernard Williams, whose work I admired. We got on to Aristotle and I expressed my interest in the concept of the ‘Aristotelian Middle’ or ‘Golden Mean’. “How boring!” said the great man, proceeding to show more interest in my wife. The classic example of the Aristotelian Mean is courage. At one extreme there is cowardice, at the other foolhardiness. Courage is the ideal — the boring ideal in Professor Williams’ case.

The memory of this brief conversation came back to me as I was reading Gordon Brown’s new book Courage - Eight Portraits (Bloomsbury). Following hot on the heels of Gordon Brown - Speeches 1997-2006 (Bloomsbury again), the new book gives the impression of a politician who is as hyperactive as Nicolas Sarkozy, about whom Kenneth Clarke, Brown’s predecessor as Chancellor, and who admires the new French president, says: “Half an hour with him is exhausting.”

Brown quotes Winston Churchill: “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all others.” But students of our virtual PM may find clues to his character in the distinction he draws between three types of courage: ‘Career heroes’ (armed forces, emergency workers, etc); ‘Situational heroes’ (people who suddenly sprint into action); and ‘Sustained altruists’, who “devote long periods, sometimes their entire lives, to principled causes”.

Although Aristotle and Plato figure in the book, it is an American writer, Frank Farley, to whom the Chancellor attributes these three categorical distinctions. I am not up on Farley myself, but perhaps Brown came across him during those far-off days in Opposition, when a close colleague said of him: “Gordon’s idea of a summer holiday is to spend a fortnight in Harvard University Library.” No prizes for guessing to which category of courage the Chancellor probably aspires: it has to be that of the sustained altruist devoted to principled causes. And what an exquisite coincidence that his study of courageous lives should appear when there should be a rash of scurrilous accusations that he has displayed a Macavity-like pattern of absence when the going gets tough.

To Brown’s credit, his position on the euro was never a bargaining counter with Tony Blair about the succession. He saw it as in our national economic interest not to join. But nobody is pressing the PM-in-waiting to join the eurozone now. The pressure on Brown rather comes from those who either want him to sign up to what is now regarded as the ‘simplified treaty’ and those who argue that he should not do so without the referendum that Blair so rashly promised for the now-defunct original treaty. Brown knows that the big decisions and movements in Europe take place when the big hitters get together. Sarkozy has rather cheekily called upon him to make clear in his actions that “he understands that Europe is not outmoded”. I think we are in for some interesting exchan-ges between La France and perfidious Albion. Let’s hope that historic courage is on display. — The Guardian