'There Is a Character Missing from the Cast of Political Life: The Public Intellectual'. (Essay)

By Reeves, Richard | New Statesman (1996), July 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

'There Is a Character Missing from the Cast of Political Life: The Public Intellectual'. (Essay)


Reeves, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


Academics write in peculiar language for specialist peers; think-tanks are slaves to corporate funding. So will politics now remain an ideas-free zone?

"Both the Conservatives and Labour have lost confidence in the political creeds which they nominally profess, while neither side appears to have made any progress in providing itself with a better. Yet such a better doctrine must be possible; not by splitting the difference between the two, but something wider than either."

This summary of the political scene (I have changed one word, substituting Labour for Liberals) came from John Stuart Mill in 1861. It seems shockingly contemporary in 2003. Both big parties are looking for a new story; for a set of core ideas to animate their programmes. For -- dare one suggest it? - an ideology.

For the past decade, what Mill disparages as "splitting the difference" --otherwise known as the Third Way--has served Labour well at the polls. Now it needs something more, a "wider doctrine" that can guide decision-making and connect with a bemused and confused electorate.

Here Labour finds itself at a loss. Who can create a clear but robust architecture for the centre-left? Who can combine blue-chip scholarship with political nous? The short answer is no one. There is a character missing from the cast of public life -- the public intellectual. Between the slow scholars in their ivory towers, with little time for grubby politics, and the furiously peddling politicians, with little time for pedantic theory, there is an ocean of muddied waters. And nowhere is the gap wider than in politics and political philosophy. Adam Swift, an Oxford philosopher who does stick his head above the public parapet, says: "The politicians think that the philosophers are only interested in talking to each other in arcane journals, which is mostly true. And the philosophers think that the politicians have no interest in real philosophical concepts, which is also mostly true."

In between, we have plenty of people sounding off in studios and on op-ed pages. But these people, often drawn from think-tanks or serious journalism, frequently have limited knowledge and expertise in the areas they pronounce upon. As they themselves realise, they often skate on very thin intellectual ice. (And yes, mea culpa.) Debate is dominated by the quick and the clever, rather than the thoughtful or the learned: what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls "le Fast Talker" rules the airwaves.

Geoff Mulgan, head of the government's strategy unit and founder of Demos, believes that there is a "theory gap" in the UK. "There are areas of strength, such as science, the environment and foreign relations. And we are good on pragmatism and empiricism in the social sciences and especially economics. The gap is in social and political theory, as well as political philosophy. What we are missing is good social and political theory."

Meanwhile, the academic who has devoted his or her life to a particular subject lies undisturbed and invisible, writing in one of the peculiar languages of scholarship to an audience of peers, with no inclination, incentive or often ability to participate in the rough-and-tumble of public debate. So we have plenty of intellectuals and plenty of public commentators -- what Plato might have called rhetoricians -- but little overlap between the two.

This absence would not be so keenly felt if ideology or history really had come to an end. As it is--post-cold war, post-new right, post-Iraq -- we need public intellectuals more than ever. Yet political discussions have become narrower and shallower. We don't think -- really, really think -- before we speak.

This is not a necessary state of affairs. The UK is not short of world-class intellectuals - it is just that many of them find a more attentive audience elsewhere. Tony Atkinson, our best economist on income inequality, is received warmly by the French government but is not to be seen in Downing Street. …

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