Magazine article The Spectator

Excuse Me, Officer, Could You Direct Me to the Nearest Public Intellectual?

Magazine article The Spectator

Excuse Me, Officer, Could You Direct Me to the Nearest Public Intellectual?

Article excerpt

Prospect magazine has cleverly won itself some publicity with a list in its July issue of 'the top 100 British public intellectuals'. It being alphabetical, Tariq Ali's name, I was pleased to see, was at its head.

As a Tory, I am an opponent of American neoconservatism. British Toryism should always oppose internationalist ideologies, of which American neoconservatism is the latest. Mr Ali, as a Marxist, is also an internationalist. But for whatever reason, he was more right about the biggest subject of the late 20th century - the Soviet Union - than the neoconservatives were. The latter said it was a mighty and frightening power. The 1960s New Left, out of which Mr Ali emerged, said it was a ramshackle polity whose might and power people like the neoconservatives exaggerated for their own purposes. By the late 1980s - not a long time after the 1960s by the standards of history - the Soviet Union collapsed without firing a shot westwards. The New Left was more right than the New Right. More Old Tories thought like Mr Ali than cared to admit it. They included, if Mr Ali will forgive the expression, Enoch Powell. But most kept quiet. Mr Ali, then, deserves his place.

So, doubtless, docs the last name on the 100, James Wood, the literary critic. A few Rightish names creep in: Noel Malcolm, Roger Scruton, David Green of the free-market think tank Civitas, and, rather daringly, Melanie Phillips. There is also David Starkey, the Macaulay of our day, for we may be sure that Macaulay in our day, as well as writing books, would also have been a television historian.

Another name is that of 'Julian Le Grand, social policy theorist'. Some us are intellectually self-confident enough to admit that we have never heard of him. It sounds like an invented name. Julian Le Grand could be a social policy theorist in a television thriller, found dead in the Sorbonne library. Did he kill himself because a rival academic had discovered that he had falsified his degree in social policy theory and that, in any case, his name was not Julian Le Grand, but Julian Le Petit? But of course it turns out to be more complicated than that.

Another explanation for this name's inclusion occurs: Prospect made the name up to expose its more pretentious contributors and readers; luring them into exclaiming to one another that Julian Le Grand was 'the only social policy theorist one read these days; the rest being so dumbed down'. But we do not associate Prospect with practical jokes.

An especially welcome name on the list is that of Lord Skidelsky: the historian Robert Skidelsky. Welcome not just because of his books, but because of a story I heard about him only the other day which I hope is true, and which, if it is, reflects vast credit on him. My informant said that Lord Skidelsky bet David Dimbleby a case of champagne that in his interview with ex-President Clinton, he would not ask Mr Clinton about the oral sex. But Mr Dimbleby did, and it was Lord Skidelsky who sent the case of champagne. For once, a public intellectual has justified himself.

But what exactly is a public intellectual? Is it the same principle as a public convenience? Excuse me, officer, I've been caught short conceptually. Could you direct me to the nearest public intellectual? Intellectuals can be touchy about whether they are spoken to with enough deference. Perhaps public intellectuals wear a sign: 'Kindly adjust your address before leaving. …

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