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June 29, 2008

Intellectuals and Politics

Importance of Not Being Intellectual

Graham Laidler’s series of cartoons on ‘The British Character’, drawn for Punch in the 1930s under the pen name Pont, includes one particularly pungent work titled ‘Importance of Not Being Intellectual’. A bedraggled gentleman in a rather unflattering corduroy suit is shown increasingly isolated in the centre of the room as the great and the good flee in shame, giving all the appearance of having just had a nasty taste of his smell. As a succinct representation of what many take to be the scepticism, and even outright hostility, of British society towards intellectuals it is unmatched.

The British it is thought, frown upon intellectuals as ‘too clever by half’, swiftly prescribing them a good dose of ‘common sense’. In part this supposition reflects the influence of a particularly English, Burkean strain of conservatism and its accompanying scepticism of human nature. When Burke howled that the “age of chivalry” had been replaced by the “age of economists, sophists and calculators” and revelled in the scarcity of Britain’s “political men of letters”, he prefigured generations of conservative anti-intellectualism. The remnants of this culture still turn up in surprising places. Punch ‘intellectuals’ into Amazon and the first result is conservative historian Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, in which he harangues such figures for their peccadilloes and misdemeanours, judging them wholly unfit to influence public affairs. Yet if this conservative tendency was a persistent one it was also always an unstable one. Thatcherites treated the intelligentsia with disdain, but Thatcher herself brazenly revealed her intellectual debt when during a party meeting she thumped Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table and bellowed “This is what we believe in.”. As ever, one must speak of intellectual anti-intellectualism.

The rarely acknowledged truth is that British intellectual culture, and public appreciation of it, is, if not in rude health, certainly in fighting shape. Richard Dawkins’s and Christopher Hitchens’s best-selling atheist polemics have reignited interest in the oldest intellectual argument of them all, spawning a whole literature of rebuttal and counter-rebuttal. Tickets for the debates organised by Intelligence Squared sell out faster than those for small music festivals. Literary festivals grow in prominence each year, with the jamboree at Hay now exported to Cartagena and Segovia. Newspaper sales may remain stagnant or in decline, but political magazines bask in an Indian summer, with the latest, Standpoint, launched last month. One of them, Prospect, announces the results of its second poll on the world’s ‘top 100 public intellectuals’ this week, with Dawkins and Hitchens likely to feature in the top five once again.

Yet Westminster remains conspicuously untouched by this resurgence, a trend all the stranger given that for the first time since Arthur Balfour, Britain has a prime minister who can reasonably lay claim to the title ‘public intellectual’. For an apt demonstration, read Brown’s speech on liberty last year or his delivery of the Hugo Young memorial lecture in 2005, the latter in particular is an intellectual tour de force, a panoramic sweep through Locke, Smith, Voltaire, Darwin and Orwell. Nor can this merely be dismissed as name-dropping; Brown remains a voracious reader and where time restricts he orders his staff to digest and summarise key works. After a meeting with Brown on terrorism, an incredulous Paddy Ashdown remarked, “He had already read all the books I had read. He was already ahead of me.” At least in this regard, Brown remains the antithesis of the famously light reading Blair.

But beyond such set-piece speeches Brown has failed to harness his intellect to recast Labour, with the result that the party’s political strategy remains that of triangulation, its default ideology that of the ‘Third Way’. Both are neither intellectually nor politically sustainable, embodying old solutions for old problems. By trading so heavily on their apparent novelty, The Third Way, and its British incarnation New Labour, ensured the rapid onset of diminishing returns. Most have recognised that Labour is suffering a political crisis, few have recognised that it is also suffering an intellectual one.

Both the liberal financier George Soros and Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, argue that the economic shocks of the past year have been unmatched since the Great Depression. The left would do well to remember that it was Keynesianism and social democracy that made the intellectual running in the aftermath of the latter. One of the few bodies attempting to carve out the space for modern equivalents to gestate is the left-wing pressure group Compass. At one point during their conference last week an audience member proposed that each member of the cabinet should be given a copy of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. The derisory laughter that followed was swiftly transformed into thoughtful murmuring as Helena Kennedy brilliantly itemised the essentials of the ‘veil of ignorance’. It those who argue that such ideas have no place in political discourse who are adopting the ahistorical and elitist position here.

The history of politics is more often than not the history of the progression of ideas from dusty seminar rooms to the world. Karl Marx scribbled in isolation in the British library, and only eleven people were at his funeral, but less than a century later governments influenced by his ideas covered a third of the world’s population. At times during the social democratic heights of the 1950s and 60s it must have seemed to Milton Friedman and Hayek as if all the true free-marketeers could have fitted into one stagecoach. Yet it was in such solitude that the embryos of the Thatcher/Reagan revolution were formed.

The tragedy of what is likely the denouement of the Labour government is that if it wished to it could draw on an intellectual arsenal, from Keynes to Rawls to Galbraith, more potent than any available to the Conservatives. However many sweet cooings David Cameron makes about ‘fraternity’ or now even ‘social justice’, the language of equality is not in the Conservatives ideological DNA; it is a con trick that flatters the very concepts Labour bizarrely shies away from. In his speech to the Compass conference Ed Miliband, one of the more cerebral members of the cabinet, spoke of a growing ‘idealism of the mainstream’. If Labour is to recover it must forge an intellectualism of the mainstream too.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 24/07/08

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